Secretive and apparently delayed, Southeast Asia’s first Apple Store to open in May: Sources

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It’s news that will have Apple fans in the region rejoicing: The tech giant’s first store in Southeast Asia is expected to open in May, according to CNBC sources.

The launch of the Singapore store has been shrouded in the company’s usual veil of secrecy. Nearly two years ago, word of the addition to the company’s beloved retail empire leaked in an email sent by the gym Pure Fitness to its clients, announcing it was leaving its sprawling space in a mall on Orchard Road.

Since then, the project has been beset by problems related to the construction in a busy part of central Singapore. A sign outside the building site originally said the expected completion date was October 31, 2016. Then it was changed to January 30 of this year. And then the date was wiped off completely.

A sign previously indicating when the Apple store expected to open has had that section blanked out (circled). CNBC | Craig Dale

The reasons for the apparent delay are somewhat opaque. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower issued a stop work order to the contractor for the worksite, Legend Interiors, an interior fit-out specialist.

According to a statement sent to CNBC by MOM, that stop work order was issued “for unsafe conditions relating to work at height, traffic management, scaffolding, electrical installation and lifting operations that were observed during an inspection at the worksite.” The order went into effect on October 24, 2016 and was lifted on November 16, 2016.

Someone who answered the phone at Legend Interiors — which says its clients include Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, Marriott, Credit Suisse, and Cathay Pacific — said they were uncomfortable answering questions about any issues that may have come up with the Apple store, especially a query about whether there had been any legal wrangling between Legend and Apple.

That person said discussing any issues would be “treading on dangerous ground,” and referred all questions to project manager Madeline Tan. Reached by phone, Tan declined to comment on the project and even refused to give her exact title.

Apple is notoriously guarded when it comes to its products, projects, and people. Staff at DP Architects PTE, the architect for the Singapore project, also declined to comment to CNBC, citing nondisclosure agreements. Employees with the civil and structural engineer, Rankine & Hill, and the mechanical and electrical engineer, J. Roger Preston, also waved away questions.

A source with knowledge of the project told CNBC about problems with a neighbor — the Grand Royal Orchard Singapore hotel. That source said there had been a conflict over logistical and infrastructure issues related to the construction.

“I think it’s all gone legal,” the source said, without specifying who brought or threatened action against whom. A manager of a retail store close to the site told CNBC she, too, was aware of a conflict. But the source with knowledge of the project said “it has all been resolved and [is] expecting to open in May.”

CNBC also reached out to the Grand Royal Orchard Singapore hotel. Elaine Heng, assistant director of marketing communications at the Park Hotel Group, the hospitality group that manages the hotel, said she could not comment on the matter.

Apple’s predilection for secrecy is perhaps unsurprisingly in action for the Singapore site. Legal documents that have come to light in the past detail strict non-disclosure agreements for the company’s contractors and suppliers, including $50 million payouts for each breach.

“Apple by nature is a very secretive company, particularly when it comes to products,” said Bryan Ma, vice president at IDC Asia Pacific. “So I wouldn’t be surprised that’s also why they’re keeping quiet about their expansion in retail stores.”

Ma added that it was “critical” for Apple to have a presence in the Southeast Asian market: “Not even from the perspective of selling products; more from the perspective of marketing.”

“In many ways, Apple stores are shrines to their fans,” he said. “It allows them to experience and touch the products. Singapore is a hub that also attracts a lot of tourists. That’s why it is strategically important for them to be here.”

Katrina Tran, Apple’s head of corporate communications for Southeast Asia and India, dismissed any notions of a delay or friction. Over the phone, she said the project was proceeding as planned and noted that Apple had never given a date for the opening. In an email, Tran told CNBC, “We don’t have any new announcements about Apple retail.”

At the site on Thursday afternoon, a phalanx of workers was busy laying paving stones and bringing materials in and out of the building, which was covered by a white tarp. Multiple people wearing shirts marked “Legend Interiors” declined to speak about the project.

One worker, though, seemed comfortable saying a few words at the end of his shift. When asked when the Apple Store in Singapore would open, he seemed quite confident. May 22 he said – twice. Calls and emails to Apple to confirm that date went unanswered.