The Singapore economy

Firms switching strategies in slower market

Firms and consumers are tightening their belts in anticipation of slower growth and dampened sentiment. In the third part of a series looking at the slowdown in the economy, Melissa Lin talks to companies in the retail sector.

Mr Chow Khai Cheng remembers when customers used to splurge over $1,000 on a kilogram or two of sea cucumbers at his dried goods store in Chinatown a few years ago.

Now, such high-spending customers are a rare breed.

"Times are bad. Customers tell me they were retrenched, changed to a lower-salary job or had lower bonuses," said Mr Chow, 59, the second-generation owner of the 49-year-old Teck Yin Soon Chinese Medical Hall in Temple Street.

"Now, even when they buy dried mushrooms, they opt for the China ones instead of the pricier Japanese ones."

Takings in the month before the recent Chinese New Year - the busiest period of the year for his shop - fell 10 per cent year-on-year, as consumers trimmed their reunion dinner budgets in anticipation of a tougher year ahead.

Across the retail sector, from independent neighbourhood shops and department stores to luxury brands, companies are bracing themselves for a quiet year as consumer sentiment dips.

A MasterCard survey of 447 people here found that Singaporeans went from being optimistic about the near future to being merely neutral about it in the second half of last year.

Separately, consumer research firm Nielsen surveyed 500 people and found that consumer confidence in Singapore fell below the global average in the three months of last year. The pessimistic outlook came on the back of rising concerns about job security and a lacklustre economy.

Financial analyst Adeline Toi, 27, has seen her friends in the banking sector get retrenched and now fears for her own job.

  • RETAIL SECTOR

  • Contribution to GDP from the retail sector in 2014: 1.4 per cent (approximately $5.5 billion)

    Sector employment in 2014: 125,000

    Composition of sector: Made up of many small firms. Only 2 per cent of retailers are considered large ones with annual revenues of at least $10 million.

"I would definitely like to save more. I'm trying to cut back my spending on senseless purchases such as clothes by 20 to 30 per cent," she said.

SHOPPERS STRETCHING THEIR DOLLAR

Despite tightened purse strings, customers still have the desire to buy, but in a way that's relevant to them and allowing them to stretch their dollar.

CHALLENGER'S CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER LOO PEI FEN, on how the electronics retailer is changing the way it sells products

With consumers tightening their belts, there are emptier malls and lower bottom lines for retailers.

"Customers will come in, look one round, then leave without buying anything," said Ms Irene Tan, 43, a sales assistant at clothing store VRG at the Wisma Atria shopping mall.

Sales were down during the recent year-end festivities. Excluding motor vehicle sales, retail sales fell 2.1 per cent and 3.6 per cent last November and December respectively, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Department of Statistics.

Despite the gloomy outlook and the less than favourable sales during the Christmas season, retailers remain "cautiously optimistic" as they expect a boost in tourist arrivals from China this year, said Mr Anthony Gan, executive director of the Singapore Retailers Association.

Despite the fall in visitor arrivals to Singapore last year, the number of Chinese visitors grew 22 per cent year-on-year. They were also the biggest spenders, and nearly half of their expenditure was on shopping.

He added: " The government forecast may have revised growth downward but, even at 1 per cent, it is still growth which many developed countries aspire to."

But retailers continue to be plagued by the perennial problems of high operating costs and a shortage of manpower. This could lead to further attrition and more shops closing down.

The increasingly difficult business environment has already claimed several high-profile casualties.

Last year, Czech shoe company Bata closed eight shops here that were either underperforming or whose leases had expired, and redeployed those employees affected. It is opening three stores this year.

Bata managing director Pierluigi Pontecorvo said the company is not expecting to grow much this year, but does not intend to cut staff or bonuses.

Instead, it is offering higher cash incentives and bonuses - about 10 per cent to 15 per cent more compared with last year - for staff who meet key performance indicators.

Employees of the Bata store with the best customer service will also win a free vacation at the end of the year.

Just last month, furniture and home accessories retailer iwannagohome said it was shutting its two stores here at the end of May.

The victims of the slowdown also include online players such as Japan's Rakuten - its website went offline earlier this month.

Other companies are switching strategies in a bid to continue driving sales.

One industry veteran, electronics retailer Challenger, is putting more resources into its online space. The company is launching its revamped online store, Hachi.sg, next month.

The website, which will offer over 50,000 products, will be optimised for browsing on mobile phones and tablets, and customers can choose to have their purchases delivered to their homes or pick them up at six store locations, instead of the current one.

The slower market has pushed Challenger to change the way it sells products, said its chief marketing officer, Ms Loo Pei Fen. The company's retail revenue in Singapore last year fell marginally - 1.6 per cent - over 2014 due to weaker consumer buying power.

"Despite tightened purse strings, customers still have the desire to buy, but in a way that's relevant to them and allowing them to stretch their dollar," Ms Loo added.

Over at the Robinsons Group of stores, sales have slowed compared with last year. But it remains positive, said Mr Christophe Cann, its group chief executive for Asia.

Instead of giving up the fight, it is doubling down and pushing ahead with plans to renovate its Robinsons department store at Raffles City, upgrade its Marks & Spencer stores here and introduce new brands to Singapore, he added.

The good news for retailers, especially those looking to set up a brick-and-mortar shop here, is that rents are on a downward trend.

Property consultancy R'ST Research estimates that rents in Orchard Road fell 5 per cent last year and is expected to fall by another 5 per cent this year.

"It's a good opportunity for retailers to bargain for lower rentals, or ask for a better location if there are vacant spaces within the same mall," said its director, Mr Ong Kah Seng.

The cheaper spaces, however, are not in the key malls in the Orchard Road belt, said Mr R. Dhinakaran, managing director of Jay Gee Melwani Group, which manages brands including Levi's, Aldo and Converse.

He added: "Rentals are going down only in the malls that are further away and are not doing as well."

• Additional reporting by Alexis Ong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Firms switching strategies in slower market'. Print Edition | Subscribe