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Rise and fall of daimaru

How a switch in location killed a giant

Ten years after the closure of Thai Daimaru, the general notion is still that the country's high-end Japanese-style department store had to shut because of the 1997 crash.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Its road to ruin began much earlier. In retrospect, it serves as a classic textbook example of how a location can make or break a business.

To older shoppers, no name was as distinguished or carried as much goodwill as Daimaru.

From Day One when it opened its doors at Rajdamri Arcade in 1964, it was a runaway success. While there were other so-called department stores in Bangkok then, few were professionally run and none could be said to be international standard chains.

In many ways, Thai Daimaru ushered in the 20th century for retailers here.

It was the first to introduce fixed pricing in the Kingdom. Until then, shoppers had to haggle with sales staff, even at Central's Bang Lamphu store in Chinatown.

Some liked the bargaining, but for Japanese and Western shoppers - as well as better-educated Thais - the practice was exhausting and rather unpleasant.

So when it brought in fixed-price tags, its rivals thought it would fail. In truth, it was vastly popular and drew even more people past its doors at the now abandoned site facing the old World Trade Centre.

Its other big attraction was an escalator. Daimaru brought in the country's first running stairway. People came from all over to ride it, some for much of the day.

But through the years, its biggest asset was its crop of loyal, blueblood, high-end shoppers. Where it counts - in quality merchandising, service, pricing and above all, ambience - the store delivered in full.

Its formula was simple: sameness. In a fast-changing world, sameness was precious to the established, old money class who craved for stability.

Sure, they liked luxury goods, but what they appreciated most was the same look, the same faces that greeted them daily and the same relaxed atmosphere that made the place felt like a second home. They could come every day, and many did, making Daimaru a part of their lives.

The other malls could have their noisy, rowdy crowds and queues. Daimaru was content to be the epitome of civility in an increasingly stressful, chaotic city.

For years it resisted the itch to change its appearance. Daimaru was the rock in a sea full of flighty operators. It stayed the course of being the same and prospered spectacularly.

The store covered 8,000 square metres and its monthly rental income was about Bt700,000.

In 1989, after 25 years, its daily income was more than Bt2 million, considered high even by today's standards.

With its success came a wave of other copycats from Japan, like Sogo, Tokyu, Isetan and Yaohan. Today all but Isetan have disappeared, wrecked by high rentals, Japan's own imploding economy in the Nineties and the 1997 crisis.

The demise of Daimaru began with making a change, and then a bad decision. Ten years before 1997, the store decided it wanted to expand.

Initially it was looking an adjacent site but the rental seemed ridiculously high.

Then came two behemoth mall projects taking shape in the eastern suburbs of Srinakarin, an area that was then considered to be in the boondocks.

Though more conservative minds warned that relocating to Srinakarin was risky, the market was filled with speculators and punters were sending space prices soaring.

The malls Seacon Square and Seri Centre were battling neck and neck for supremacy - both located on the same stretch, just a few hundred metres apart.

Although Seacon's builder Kobchai Sosothikul had nearly sealed a deal for Daimaru to be its anchor tenant, the store's management went with Seri Centre.

When Daimaru moved to its new 24,000-square-metre store at Seri in 1989, it was the beginning of the end. Not only were its inner-city customers unable to go there, they disliked its bigness.

Worse, the rental was Bt2 million a month and the new store was pulling in just Bt700,000 a day.

In short, it cost three times more than Rajdamri but drew three times less money. But its head office in Japan was supportive and thought the situation would improve. It slashed its space by a third but sales remained poor.

Things got steadily worse when in the ensuing contest, Seri lost out to Seacon with its 11-screen international standard cineplex managed by EGV ( a joint venture with Australia's Golden Village). Seacon was packing in the crowds but by then it was too late for Daimaru to switch, having signed a 20-year lease with Seri.

When it shut in 1998, Daimaru's losses had soared to Bt1.7 billion. To annul the lease, Daimaru gave Seri its inventory of goods worth Bt8 million as well as the right to use its name and staff for about a year.

Today Daimaru operates just four stores - in Tokyo, Osaka and two other Japanese cities.

Itthi C Tan

The Nation


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