Orchard Road is No. 1

WE KNOW that Orchard Road is a shopper's paradise.

But it is No. 1 in the world?

Yes, said French mystery shopping firm Presence, which surveyed 30 of the world's most well-known shopping streets, including the Champs Élysées in Paris. (See report on facing page.)

The results have come as quite a shock even to those rooting for the shopping belt, such as the Orchard Road Business Association (Orba).

"We are humbled by this recognition. After all, Orchard Road is the pride of Singapore," Orba's executive director, Mr Steven Goh, said.

"It is a gem of a street and we are heartened that the ongoing endeavours by Orchard Road stakeholders, government agencies and Orba have been recognised internationally."

Presence, which touts itself as the No. 1 mystery-shopping service provider in France, is hired by companies to audit and compare their service levels with similar businesses in Europe and around the globe.

The 25-year-old firm said it does more than 100,000 audits a year.

The survey, which is in its fourth edition, was conducted between August and September last year and surveyed nearly 400 retail outlets worldwide.

The company sent about 90 mystery shoppers to nearly 400 stores in 30 popular shopping streets such as London's Bond Street and Sydney's George Street and asked them to grade their experiences.

Criteria for the grading included customer service, appearance of the retail outlets, interaction with passers-by and the overall atmosphere of the shopping street.

Singapore aced all the categories and topped the list with 89 points out of 100.

Mystery shoppers were impressed by Orchard Road's "wide and clean pavements", as well as the "diversity of shops", said Presence's report.

The survey results are good news for Singapore.

Last week, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said that tourism receipts in the third quarter of last year hit $6 billion, which is a 12 per cent year-on-year jump, driven largely by shopping expenditure.

Close to 3.5 million tourists visited Singapore in those three months, up 15 per cent from the same period in 2010.

STB's precinct development director, Mr Andrew Phua, said there could be several factors accounting for Singapore's good showing in the survey.

"Some of these include the Orchard Road mall enhancement works in 2009, which enabled a seamless pedestrian experience, the opening of new malls such as ION Orchard, 313@somerset and Knightsbridge, and the introduction of first-to-market brands like H&M and Abercrombie & Fitch."

He added that Singapore's service excellence drive called Go the Extra Mile for Service (Gems) also played an important role.

Critical

"Undoubtedly, industry initiatives like the Gems Up movement have contributed to the strengthening of Singapore's service culture, a critical factor in the overall consumer experience," he said.

Gems was launched in 2005 by the STB, Singapore Workforce Development Agency and Spring Singapore to encourage improvement of service levels here.

Gems Up is the second phase of Gems.

Industry watchers like Mr Zack Bana, co-founder and principal consultant of Beacon Consulting, said the survey results are indicative of the fruit that Gems has borne.

"I think Gems, especially the various schemes rolled out by the Government, such as offering businesses perks to take their service standards up a notch, has definitely contributed to improvements in service in Singapore," he said.

But the nation's service standards have some way to go, added Mr Bana, whose consultancy works closely with the Singapore Retailer's Association and Spring Singapore to train retail staff and measure service standards through its own mystery shopping process.

"From my experience, the improvements can be short-lived and are typically dependent on the existence of a scheme which extends perks to businesses that strive for good service.

"In times when the economy is on the upturn, businesses may not be as motivated by the schemes as well."

Despite topping the charts in Presence's mystery shopping survey, customer service in Singapore was ranked 19th in the latest world ranking on customer service conducted by the World Economic Forum.

The ranking was a dip from the report's 2009/2010 edition, when Singapore came in 10th.

But it's still an improvement compared to 2004 and 2006, when we were ranked 21st and 26th, respectively.

Mr Goh said shoppers have exciting activities, including a six-week lifestyle and fashion event featuring fashion shows and styling workshops, to look forward to this year.

"As part of our efforts to create an all-inclusive and vibrant street-scape, this year, Orba is looking at organising more iconic events such as Fashion Steps Out @ Orchard and the Earth Hour celebration in our precinct," said Mr Goh.

Mr Stanley Lui, who runs fashion blog Fashionide, was not surprised by the survey results.

"I think our service standards have improved quite significantly compared to a few years ago and the fact that many Singaporeans are largely bilingual helps to make the shopping experience much more pleasant for tourists," he said.

But recent events have made the 23-year-old less sure whether Orchard Road deserved the accolade.

Mr Lui said: "There's no doubt that our streets are clean, but the recent spate of flooding and piping problems have made me doubt if we deserve the No. 1 placing."

Miss Euphemia Toong, a curator, was surprised when told of the survey's results.

"I would have expected us to be in the top 10, but I'm surprised we were first," she said.

"In my opinion, countries like Thailand and Korea, whose staff may not be as fluent in English as us, are much warmer and friendlier."