Young entrepreneurs setting up shop in HDB heartland 

Owners of tailor shop Este Bartin, Justin Loy (right), 33, and Barry Lim (left) , 35, together with their employee, Benedict Teo (center), 23, at their boutique in Toa Payoh.
Owners of tailor shop Este Bartin, Justin Loy (right), 33, and Barry Lim (left) , 35, together with their employee, Benedict Teo (center), 23, at their boutique in Toa Payoh.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Mr Muhammad Tirmidzi Saad (leftmost) and Mr Melvin Koh (third from left), both 31, opened gentleman's barber shop The Black Tie in at the bottom of a Jurong West block last month. With them are their store manager and barbers, who are all aged betwee
Mr Muhammad Tirmidzi Saad (leftmost) and Mr Melvin Koh (third from left), both 31, opened gentleman's barber shop The Black Tie in at the bottom of a Jurong West block last month. With them are their store manager and barbers, who are all aged between 21 and 26.PHOTO: COURTESY OF MUHAMMAD TIRMIDZI SAAD
Members of the Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association (from left) Mr Ho Kim Long, 40, vice-secretary; Ms Gao Zhiying, 40; Mr Xu Guochang, 38; Mr Peter Lai, 65, president; Mr Mark Lim Boon Wei, 31, relationship officer; Mr Lim Kok Yong, 50, tre
Members of the Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association (from left) Mr Ho Kim Long, 40, vice-secretary; Ms Gao Zhiying, 40; Mr Xu Guochang, 38; Mr Peter Lai, 65, president; Mr Mark Lim Boon Wei, 31, relationship officer; Mr Lim Kok Yong, 50, treasurer; and Mr Chiong Chee Seng, 53, secretary. The association has been recruiting younger members for ideas on how to survive in a worsening retail climate.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Younger generation of shopkeepers breathing new life into heartland malls

Walk into any HDB mom-and-pop shop and chances are there will be an elderly uncle or auntie behind the counter.

The heartland enterprise scene is often associated with old shopkeepers plying traditional trades such as sundry stores and medical halls.

But this is morphing as a younger generation enters the scene. Their average age is 48, down from 50 five years ago, said the HDB.

And many of them are breathing new life into the heartlands by setting up cafes, ice-cream parlours and gentleman barber shops.

Secondary school buddies Muhammad Tirmidzi Saad and Melvin Koh, both 31, opened The Black Tie barber shop at a Jurong West HDB block last month.

REJUVENATION

We let our younger shop owners take charge of our activities. We hope they can apply their fresh ideas to attract more youngsters. We need to become one with them or we will get left behind.

MR PETER LAI, Ang Mio Kio Merchants Association president

"We wanted an HDB space so we can be closer to and serve the community. All of us grew up in Jurong and this is like our kampung," said Mr Tirmidzi.

The vibe is youthful, to say the least. The store manager and all three barbers are no older than 26 and sport the latest hipster fashion of bow ties and suspenders. But the shop preserves traditional elements like a barber pole, and its vintage soccer theme pays tribute to football stars of yore such as Kenneth "King Kenny" Dalglish and Fandi Ahmad, whose photos dot the walls.

"Not many of our generation want to become barbers. But we want to carry on this trade," said Mr Tirmidzi.

 

Other youngish entrepreneurs cite affordable rents, a steady customer stream of residents and the relaxed atmosphere as some reasons for setting up shop in HDB neighbourhoods.

 

Mr Douglas Tan, 23, who founded cafe Tolido's Espresso Nook in Lavender three years ago, said: "It's homely here and we have lots of regulars who either live above us or in the blocks nearby."

The owner of leather accessories shop onlyBrown, Mr Kelvin Cheong, 43, is renting a third of an Everton Park unit for about $2,000 each month. "The rent is lower than what we would have to pay in some malls," said Mr Cheong, who opened his store last August.

Surprise also plays a part in drawing customers. Said Mr Cheong: "There is a pet store and stalls selling tau huay and ang ku kueh along this stretch. Nobody expects a shop like mine in an HDB block."

 

Shopkeepers are flexing their creative muscles in other ways, too.

Mr Muhammad Zulkefly Jainul Abidin, 27, and his wife may have opened cold-press juice shop Fruit Depot only last month, but they already have a customer loyalty card.

"They get a free item after buying four drinks," said Mr Zulkefly, who also sells smoothies and waffles at his Depot Road shop.

"It makes sense because we are targeting more or less the same crowd - residents and nearby office workers - every day," he said.

The fever of youth is also heating up at the Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association, which has been actively recruiting younger members for ideas on how to survive in a worsening retail climate.

While most of its committee members used to be over the age of 50, now more than a third are in their 30s and 40s.

With young members such as Mr Mark Lim, 31, who owns a women's clothing store, on board, the association is exploring fresh ways to draw people. Recently, they gave out lucky draw coupons to customers who reached a minimum spend at participating shops.

Association president Peter Lai, 65, said: "We let our younger shop owners take charge of activities. We hope they can apply their fresh ideas to attract more youngsters.

"We need to become one with them or we will get left behind."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2016, with the headline 'The youth elixir at work'. Print Edition | Subscribe