SINGAPORE - At a void deck below a Housing Board block in Hougang is a provision shop but, unlike many others, no one mans it.
A handmade cash register at the front of the shop displays instructions on how to pay for items: check the price tag, show it to any one of the shop's eight closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, and place the money into a slot. To get change, press buttons on the register to either get $1 or $0.10 back in coins.
The "shopkeeper-less" store at Block 242 Hougang Street 22 is owned by Mr Alex Song, 54, who runs a clothing store town and got into the provision shop business in June 2015 "with no experience", he said.
Within the first three months, he figured out why many provision shops struggle to survive. It was difficult to hire shopkeepers he could trust and suppliers were charging him a high price, he said.
"The cost price of my items were sometimes higher than the retail price at supermarkets," Mr Song told The Straits Times at his Hougang shop on Tuesday (Nov 1).
To cut manpower costs, the former airforce technician fashioned his own "robot cash register", at a cost of less than $200, to man the shop. The robot-looking cash register is made mostly of wood, with some plastic and metal, with CCTV cameras embedded as its "eyes".
He started by placing just a small amount of sweets and biscuits for sale in front of the shop, and closed the rest of the store. Four CCTV cameras kept an eye on would-be thieves.
"At first I was worried that when I return to the shop at night, I would see an empty shop," he said with a laugh.
He progressively opened more of the shop and added four more CCTV cameras to cover blind spots. The cost of the eight CCTV cameras set him back by about $1,000.
He estimated that thieves strike about twice a month, causing him losses of about $50 per month - an amount he said pales in comparison to the $1,500 it would cost him to hire a shopkeeper.
Photographs of thieves, captured by his CCTV cameras, are plastered around the store.
But he has made a police report just once, when a group of people stole from the shop.
"After I put up the photos, some of the thieves actually came back to return me money and apologise, so I let it slide," said Mr Song.
He recalled one case in which three children, all siblings, stole food and drinks worth over $10 at his store.
"The cameras caught them very clearly. After I put up their photos, their mother brought them to my shop to apologise and pay me back. She was very sad and cried," he said.
"It woke the kids up. A few days later, they wrote a letter to me to apologise."
In another case, a man pretended to pay for a can of luncheon meat at the register but used his head to block the CCTV camera. But he did not realise that another CCTV camera in front of the register caught him putting the coins into his mouth instead.
The man is still at large.
But despite the hassle of running the shop this way, Mr Song said: "It's worth it if one person can change for the better and not steal anymore in future."
Meanwhile, he is looking for a new location to move his provision shop to. "I'm not making money, not because of the (shopkeeper-less) system but because of the poor crowd. But I'll bring the system along with me to the next location," he said.