From Kensington Square along Upper Paya Lebar Road and Novena Regency to The Midtown @ Hougang and MacPherson Mall, to name a few, the retail slump — which first hit the prime shopping districts several months ago — is starting to bite suburban retailers, and the impact on strata-titled malls in housing estates is stark. At the real estate investment trust (Reit)-owned malls such as Jurong Point, Nex in Serangoon, Northpoint in Yishun and AMK Hub, landlords are pulling out all the stops through promotions and loyalty programmes to stave off the chill. However, amid the economic slowdown and uncertain job market, vacancy rates are creeping up and tenants are reporting lower earnings as shoppers tighten their belts, even during the festive period.

Data from property firm Jones Lang Lasalle show that the average vacancy rate of suburban malls, including Reit-owned and strata-titled shopping centres, has more than doubled from less than 1 per cent in 2013 to 2.4 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year. Average monthly gross rents for prime retail space in these malls have also fallen by 7.1 per cent in the final three months of last year, compared with the fourth quarter of 2015. The decline is catching up with the fall of 7.5 per cent in rentals for prime retail space in Orchard Road over the same period.

Mr Alan Cheong, senior director of property firm Savills Singapore, said: "While the heartlands are a trong source of catchment, they are also vulnerable to any decline in disposable income or concerns about job security."

Analysts noted that the recently-launched strata-titled malls — where shop owners or investors own the individual units — were sold by developers during the property bull run between 2010 and 2013, and bought at high prices by cash-rich individuals. These investors are likely to leave their shops vacant for now, instead of lowering rents, the analysts said.

Kensington Square, for example, has 57 commercial units, apart from its 141 residential units. When TODAY visited the development last week, there was only one tenant open for business — a Giant supermarket, which occupies several units. Another unit is undergoing renovation, but the rest of the shop spaces are empty.

Residents living in the adjacent Tai Keng Gardens private housing estate had been looking forward to the mall, as there are few shops in the area, but they have been left disappointed so far.

"We were initially glad that we will not need to take a long walk to get to the eateries or shops across the road, or to take the bus to the nearby Nex ... but look at it now," said Mr Kendo Chan, a 75-year-old resident.

At the older strata-titled malls, such as East Village in Simpang Bedok, the shop spaces end up being dominated by eateries, which tend to be more resilient in an economic slowdown.

Ms Natasha, who works at the snack bar Chulop at East Village, noted that several non-eateries have recently closed shop. "They were not able to do good business," she said.

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