HDB shops turn to cyber retail as rental and labour costs go up

Retailer James Lim is heading online to sell his firm SKP's party ware, food packaging and stationery, even though he does not see himself as being particularly tech-savvy. His first foray into cyber retailing will be through e-commerce portal Shang
Retailer James Lim is heading online to sell his firm SKP's party ware, food packaging and stationery, even though he does not see himself as being particularly tech-savvy. His first foray into cyber retailing will be through e-commerce portal Shang Market, but he is also looking at Instagram and Facebook.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

POOR business coupled with steep costs for manpower and rental forced Madam Suzie Tan and her husband to close the shutters of their Housing Board shop in Hougang for good in 2011.

But their family business of 60 years, now called GMM Technoworld, found a new lease of life when they ventured online.

Today, their business, which sells underwater accessories and environment gadgets, is thriving. Sales are up 80 per cent from what they saw when they had a shopfront, said Madam Tan, 48.

"Youngsters prefer to go online. It's easy to see our items and click and buy," she said.

Amid rising costs and a labour crunch, neighbourhood shop owners like Madam Tan are turning to cyberspace in the hope of reviving or expanding their businesses.

And they should do so or risk getting left behind, said Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore.

"With e-commerce and social media, you can reach out to more customers," said Mr Yeo.

"Unless they are already very popular, old businesses will eventually lose out to the competition if they don't keep up."

About 30 businesses, including GMM Technoworld and some HDB heartland shops, have taken this advice and joined new start-up e-commerce site Shang Market to sell their wares.

The portal, which started in July, also provides merchants with the necessary technical software and training, and settles delivery services on their behalf.

Its chief executive, Mr Philip Wong, said he expects more than 100 merchants to get on the bandwagon by next year.

However, he noted, not enough HDB shops are doing so, simply because embracing an online business model would require a shift in attitudes.

According to official estimates, there are some 16,000 heartland shops, including those in HDB-run malls. But most of them continue to exist only as brick and mortar outlets.

Still, Mr James Lim, 59, is willing to take the plunge.

The director of SKP, which sells party ware, food packaging and stationery, is taking his family's retail business online for the first time since it was opened in 1991.

"Times have changed, and we need to keep up," said the father of two, who does not consider himself tech-savvy.

SKP, which has a website, will soon be hawking its products for the first time in cyberspace on Shang Market.

Mr Lim even plans on fanning out to Instagram and Facebook for the next step of his virtual revamp.

"It's a trend," he said. "You cannot run away from it."

Even so, other shop owners such as health and beauty centre boss Karney Ngai intend to stay offline.

"Our services, such as foot reflexology massages and manicures, cannot be sold online," said the 66-year-old, who is also chairman of the Yuhua Constituency St 31 Shop-Proprietors and Hawkers Association.

"Also, we rely mainly on regular customers who will call us directly, rather than new ones who might find us on Facebook."

yeosamjo@sph.com.sg