As P. LAL Store group managing director Minesh Doshi recalls it, the first Malaysian entity to venture into the winter wear business was his father, Bhansuklal who started the trend in the 1970s.
“We were not the first in Malaysia, but South-East Asia,” says Doshi proudly. Now 47, he runs the winter wear division from their new store in Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya.
The transition from toys, followed by textiles and then men’s shirts and children’s clothes to winter wear begun at the old store in Batu Road (now Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman), Kuala Lumpur, which also sold imported shoes.
By the 1980s, the sales of winter clothing had superseded the men’s and children’s wear division that Bhansuklal decided to scrap the latter to concentrate on the former.
To clear stock, men’s shirts were sold for as low as RM9.90 and children’s clothing were offered on a “buy one, free one” basis.
To cement customer confidence, a money-back guarantee was promised to those who could purchase an identical product at a lower price, a deal including duty-free outlets as well as sales.
As proof, it had to be presented with a receipt in its original, unused condition.
“So far, since I have taken over the winter section, only two customers have made good of this offer and the difference was only 20 sen at most,” affirms Doshi.
At one point in time, there was even a local gloves and socks factory in Seremban manufacturing the winter wear but has since closed down.
“In the past, garment factories were given the privilege to operate in free trade zones and this saw names such as Hing Yiap and Padini having their own factories with Dorothy Perkins and Armani making their clothes in Malaysia. But we had one flaw. We were not self sustaining. There was no local manufacturer for fabrics, yarn, buttons or zips,” points out director of Goin’ Places Khoo Suat Teow.
The early years, recalls Khoo, saw students going abroad for the first time, making up its largest customer base, followed by businessmen from the private sector and lastly, holiday makers. Today, the latter sector has taken over as the largest customer base.
“I suppose I would have had more customers from the business sector if we had given in to requests to inflate the price on the sale receipts so they could get higher claims. But we did not entertain their requests,” reminisces Khoo.
During these frugal years, it was also customary for people to borrow coats from each other as it was the most expensive item.
“Back then, they just bought gloves, sweaters and long johns as add-ons. Today, when we source for long johns from our suppliers we are told only grandfathers and uncles wear them!
“Nevertheless, experience has shown that these are still necessary for those who are going to go from 36°C to 0°C for the first time as the body needs time to acclimatise to the temperature,” says Khoo, who reveal that they can easily push off 8,000 to 10,000 pieces of these undergarments every year.
The current scenario not only sees shoppers grabbing winter wear during the store’s yearly sales though they have yet to cement travel plans.
It is also common to see parents coming in to shop for their children who are studying abroad. Approval of designs are blipped back and forth via WhatsApp before the items are sent through the parcel service.
“This is one way parents are assured their money is really going towards keeping their children warm rather than just sending them the money and not knowing for sure if it is really being spent on the right things,” says Doshi, who speaks from 30 years of experience.
Winter fashion was also unisex then, meaning the girls were basically content to wear what the boys wore.
“From my father’s mindset, this made inventory very easy. When I took over, the first thing I did was to segregate ladies’ and mens’ wear,” recalls Khoo.
This had come about from a personal experience as an economics and business student in Monash University, Australia.
“Varsity life opened my eyes to winter fashion. That gave me a clear focus of what I wanted to do with the label’s direction,” says Khoo.
Coming from a sundry wholesale background started by Khoo’s father, Kee Sing, in the 1960s, the label has grown to eight outlets since it ventured into winter wear in 1995 as a 450sq ft consignment counter in Metrojaya Bukit Bintang.
During sale periods in the early years, Khoo reported they could top the floor with a daily sales of RM20,000.
“That attracted attention,” recalls Khoo, who reports an accumulative total of RM5mil in yearly sales for Goin’ Places.
What had spurred the Liew siblings to start off Kok Kong Winter Wear, a winter wear basement store in Jalan Loke Yew, Kuala Lumpur in 2002 can be attributed to four factors.
“Originally, it was my father Kok Kong who founded the company, starting off with garment accessories (zips, buttons, thread and other tailoring articles).
“When the garment manufacturing sector started relocating to China, he decided to add in the winter wear as a means of diversification.
“The decision was spurred by the fact that we knew more Malaysians were travelling abroad in search of fresh opportunities after emerging from the Asian financial crisis. Other factors such as no-frills packages offered by low-cost airlines and travel fairs that convinced people to travel to holiday destinations such as Japan, Taiwan, China and parts of Europe such as Finland also helped,” says Bobo Liew, who runs the administrative affairs of Kok Kong.
Reporting a yearly sales figure of close to RM2mil, Yuki, Bobo’s elder sister who runs the floor says, apart from an advertising budget of RM300,000 a year, customers are most impressed when the store is able to give them ideas on how to chill out in winter wear.
“For example, we would suggest matching outfits to couples going on honeymoon. The idea is to make sure they look good in the holiday photographs so they would remember us.
“It’s not just about making a sale. You have to know where they are going and when, so as to recommend suitable items,” says Yuki, who gets the bulk of her fashion ideas from Korean dramas and Japanese magazines.
“While there are stores that insist on sticking to classic styles such as P.Lal Store, Khoo’s personal observation is that Malaysians are more open to winter trends now, influenced by South Korean dramas like Winter Sonata.
“Five years ago, earmuffs were all the rage but today, it’s beanies with tassels.
“2013 was the year of the bubble jacket but for 2014, it’s parkas with collars sporting shearing and faux fur collars.
“Back in the 1970s, P.Lal also carried fur coats, made with real rabbit fur. At that time, these coats were being sold for RM500, equivalent to RM2,000 in today’s prices. But, the look lasted for no more than five years before the demand dwindled.”
“The question of whether the Malaysian market is strong enough to sustain the fickle nature of what’s in trend is subjective.
“One side insists we would go under as we simply do not have the numbers. But on the other hand, there is the reminder that in the era of cheaper travel, people enjoyed more than one snowy experience. And they are not going to want to wear the same thing when they go for their next winter trip.