NTU students float ideas to help heartland businesses flourish

NTU Nanyang Business School final year student Royston Chua sharing his project group's suggestions on how to revitalise heartland businesses at the Singapore Heartland Enterprise Seminar on March 30, 2016.
NTU Nanyang Business School final year student Royston Chua sharing his project group's suggestions on how to revitalise heartland businesses at the Singapore Heartland Enterprise Seminar on March 30, 2016.PHOTO: FEDERATION OF MERCHANTS' ASSOCIATIONS, SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - Extending shop opening hours to 2am, diversifying one's services and setting up business management committees - these are some ideas floated by a group of university students to help heartland shops in Singapore survive and flourish.

The group of 34 students from Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, led by adjunct professor, Dr Lynda Wee, embarked on a project last year which aimed to provide suggestions from young people on how to revitalise heartland businesses.

The students spoke to over 50 Housing Board (HDB) business owners across the island to find out their operational challenges. Some of these include poor technological expertise and the lack of young successors.

The students shared their findings at the Singapore Heartland Enterprise Seminar on Wednesday (March 30), where many HDB shop owners were present.

The annual event, formerly known as the HDB Retail Seminar, is organised by the Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore.

Noting that many HDB businesses have been facing stiff competition from shopping malls, the students suggested that shops could stay open till 2am to catch many young professionals after work.

Shops like laundromats could also diversify their services and double up as a cafe, serving coffee to customers while they wait fo r their laundry, the students said.

Other ideas include providing delivery options, cooperating with other shops in the form of business management committees (known as Heartland Retail Managements) and rolling out incentives such as rental waivers to encourage younger people to start heartland enterprises.

One of the group's members, final-year student Royston Chua, 24, said: "Unlike shops in malls which run activities and promotions together, many HDB shops are just doing their own thing.

"A Heartland Retail Management will help give them more hustle and bustle and hopefully bring out the unique qualities of the neighbourhood."

Many HDB shop owners said these ideas had the potential to improve their business, although some noted that they might be difficult to execute.

Madam Saw Yock Lan, who has run HDB shop Meiko Tailor in Hougang for 40 years, said extending her opening hours till late at night is difficult. She said: "It's very hard to hire people to work at such a late hour."

But Madam Saw added: "I like the idea of providing customers with coffee. Cooperating with other businesses could be good too. For example, we could all give our customers vouchers for other stores nearby."

Chairman of Tampines Merchant Association Kwek Hong Lim, 39, said the idea of a formal business management committee among heartland shops is not new.

He said such a body would help member businesses collaborate with public agencies on many fronts such as physical upgrading, running business promotions and organising festive activities such as flea markets.

"It's something we have been trying to do for a long time. But different stakeholders have different interests. It's hard to get everyone on board," explained Mr Kwek, who owns the Yes Supermarket chain in Tampines.

Senior Minister of State for National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, on Wednesday noted that many HDB shops are struggling with competition from malls and the Internet.

But he added that many Singaporeans who live in HDB estates still prefer their neighbourhood shops.

"The biggest advantage of heartland businesses is that they can provide residents with fast and convenient services and products," said Mr Lee in Mandarin. "When we shop at a familiar neighbourhood store, the shopkeeper's friendly smile and greeting gives one a sense of warmth."