It’s hard to imagine there’s a little store in the heart of Orchard Road that welcomes you to slide into their Maruni chairs, sip Yamazaki in glasses off their shelves – and chatter away. But that’s what lifestyle and furniture store Atomi does.
“I started Atomi around eight to nine years ago. I was [previously] a consultant – always looking for unique, you know, blue ocean strategies. Eight years ago, every hotel had a Japanese restaurant. From Le Meridien to the [then] new St. Regis all had them,” founder Andrew Tan quipped. Two decades ago, Japanese retail saw its zenith in Singapore.
But when the millennium turned, the industry mysteriously receded. Japanese departmental stores Yaohan closed in 1997, Tokyu in 1998, Sogo in 2000, Daimaru in 2003, Isetan closed its Wisma Atria outlet in 2014, and reported net loss of $3.1 million in 2015. Today only three of them stands – Isetan at Jurong East and Shaw House, and Takashimaya along Orchard Road.
“[Japan] place great value to handmade products – can make such beautiful things, but are disconnected with the market. Good at making, but not good at creating a brand for it… They lost that branding, connection with individuals – with the young, and the middle-aged.”
An array of impeccably hand-made products from Japan – at reasonable price tags.
Tan recounted a trip to Isetan in Kuala Lumpur, where he chanced upon a household brush retailing at RM100. He promptly whipped out his phone to show me another hand-weaved straw tote-bag that was priced over a thousand dollars at the new Japan Rail Cafe at Tanjong Pagar.
“People do [buy] – they are willing to spend on food. But clothes and furniture wise, that’s a stretch.”
“Singapore is not [ready] to spend on arts, spend on design yet,” Tan muses. He quickly drew a parallel with equally well-made, and lavishly-priced items. “Swiss has done such a good job with branding, but Japan has not hit that.” Comparing Patek Philippe to Seiko, and German Leica to Sony’s camera, “I will still buy a Leica. It’s the branding. We talk about design [too often in Japan], but the westerners are ready to invest in [branding]. The Japanese are too shy.”
But Tan and wife Mitsuko Murano had a solution. “What we wanted to do was to bring out [the merits of Japanese products], and make them accessible in English. Even with the best items, once you miss the chance to brand it, to get them out,” it’s immediately lost in the tumultuous sea of products. “There are amazing products, but we will have to be the translators.”
Like operating a system of pulleys, Tan and Murano hoist and lower import, handling, rental, manpower costs to address the perennial predicament of overpriced Japanese products.
Their small storefront, was “a deliberate way to keep the cost down. Rental is expensive.” With that, they designed a befitting retail model. “I wanted an intimate shopping experience. I still bring in good furniture. But with my overheads low, I can offer products close to Japan’s prices.”
When there are fewer products in store, turnover rate naturally increases. “Every month when you come in, there are new products. Each time you walk in, it’s a new look and feel.” Tan’s method sustains regular footfall, and the steady stream of new products proved refreshing to his clients. But what was most remarkable, was the sensory shopping experience.
Pham Quang Tung
Atomi's space at Mandarin Gallery, level four.
As Tan spoke, I was typing furiously away on a lofty wood table. He casually diverted me to another table with sakura sake and whisky. I moved, and we continued speaking. It wasn’t a few minutes later that he grinned, and watchfully pointed out, “Don’t you feel much more comfortable now? This table is slightly lower – two centimetres, and it fits your height. You arms,” he gestured a right angle, noting that my elbows were resting comfortably at 90 degrees. “You were propping your body up to reach the table just now, but this table is more suitable for you. Even the chair is lower by two centimetres.”
“If you came by yesterday, you would have seen us drinking away, using different glasswares – copper for cocktails, and wine.” Murano brandished an array of sake glasses – carved of wood, hammered copper, blown glassware, thick and thin polished porcelain. “Sake will taste differently in different cups.” In Japan, drinking is an exacting etiquette. Wooden cups are for hot sake, for wood is a poor conductor of heat; copper, a good conductor is for cold sake, for the cup will be cool to touch. “It’s very refreshing. Different materials will give you different [sensations]. It [caters to] the five senses, a full sensory experience.”
When placed innocuously on shelves, no one would know.
Pham Quang Tung
From left, Yamazaki plum liqueur, thick copper, think copper, red wood, porcelain sake cups.
Pham Quang Tung
A narrow-bottom whisky glass; bottle of whisky; wooden pen carved of barrels that once kept whisky.
He placed a fluted champagne glass for sparkling beverages, “so the bubbles bubble up nicely.” And reached for a hand-made rock glass, “the narrower bottom helps you swirl your whisky.”
“Do you like coffee?” Tan darted around the store. Murano dishes out several coffee cups and proceeds to grind coffee beans from the all-new Koffee Mameya – a new venture by the guys who founded Omotesando Koffee.
Pham Quang Tung
A TORCH coffee drip set, and Koffee Mameya ground for friends when they drop by for afternoon coffee.
His take on proper retailing for impeccably made products, is that “we kick the tire, we sit down, use them.” It’s only through use that customers realise how good design can better lives. “It’s [about] how comfortable you are,” Tan added.
Tan on average, travels every two months to all corners of Japan in search of the best makers. He also acts as a consultant for the Japanese government, supplying them with market research – from construction, retail, beverages, to restaurant groups.
To encourage customers to try before buying, Tan and Murano hosts regular tasting events in store. “Every month we have seasonal sakes, makers…and musicians,” present for customers to taste and meet.
What Atomi wants to go against, is the detrimental culture of fast – fast-food, fast-fashion, fast-furniture, and fast-production – by pressing for good design. To that, Tan concluded, “I’m willing to put money in what I believe in.”
Pham Quang Tung
From left, 39-year-old Andrew Tan, 40-year-old wife Mitsuko Murano, and boutique manager Lynn Nilar.
Atomi is located at 333A Orchard Road, Mandarin Gallery level four.
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