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The Straits Times says

Keeping cooperatives inclusive

The setting up of FairPrice Shop reflects, in a most basic way, the core mission of NTUC FairPrice Cooperative, set up over four decades ago to help tame the cost of living and fight profiteering. The no-frills stores are to serve smaller households and those with tight budgets, like residents of one- to three-room flats in Henderson, Boon Lay, Ang Mo Kio and Jurong East. Lower overheads arising from a narrower range of products - most-shopped items offering greater value - mean lower prices which will help those who need to stretch their grocery dollars. This is welcome news for households made up of just seniors. Numbering 82,600 currently, this group is expected to mushroom by 2030. The move to offer them and others greater convenience and affordability underscores the social orientation of Singapore's largest grocery retailer.

FairPrice caters to all and sundry by offering as many as 20,000 products, from rice to wines. Like the nation's much-loved hawker centres, its pervasive network of stores offers spaces where people from all walks of life - adding up to 430,000 shoppers daily - can mingle. Over time, the supermarket chain created other outlets like FairPrice Finest, FairPrice Xtra, FairPrice Xpress and Cheers to serve different demographic segments. Its latest move shows that it has not lost sight of those occupying the lower rungs of society as well.

The growth of FairPrice represents the singular success of cooperatives in Singapore, spearheaded by the labour movement. The concept is not unique to the nation, drawing its ethos of cooperation from the practices of the Rochdale pioneers of England in the 19th century. Fairness is central to the philosophy of cooperatives in general, but thriving in a marketplace calls for other principles as well. An emphasis on economic viability, evident here, can be traced to former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee who had challenged NTUC in 1969 to establish cooperatives that could hold their own in different competitive fields. The signal contribution of the labour movement was the speed and depth of the efforts it took to put FairPrice on a winning streak.

In the same spirit, heartland shop operators who feel threatened by the FairPrice Shop network ought to remake themselves in order to survive. There will always be a segment of consumers who require the lowest prices possible for essential goods. Businessmen who are prepared to accept lower profit margins and keep costs to a minimum will be able to serve these shoppers, too. Others will find niches for themselves by offering added value or specific goods that are not easily available. Consumer markets, even in HDB neighbourhoods, will evolve as the population ages and society becomes more diverse. Opportunities await those who are nimble.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2016, with the headline 'Keeping cooperatives inclusive'. Print Edition | Subscribe