IT WAS 1.30am at the Sheng Siong supermarket in Khatib Central, and Mr Arnold Alcones, 31, was dragging his suitcase down almost empty aisles. The flight attendant had got off a plane an hour ago and was itching for supper.
"I like that they don’t increase the prices here even though it is open 24 hours, unlike other convenience stores, where the prices are generally higher," he said, leaving with carrot juice, carrots, grapes and cherry tomatoes.
At the same outlet, personal assistant Eliza Puay, 36, was picking up lemons, diapers and a bottle of meat-braising sauce. She told The Straits Times: "I have four kids between three and 15 years old. During the day, it’s almost impossible to shop."
Be it to satisfy late-night hunger pangs, or a yen for a more serene shopping experience, more people are getting their groceries in the wee hours and supermarket chains here are opening more 24-hour stores to cater to them.
There are now more than 130 supermarket stores that are open 24 hours, including smaller ones, such as FairPrice outlets at Block 107, Tampines Street 11, and Block 57, New Upper Changi Road.
The largest supermarket chain, FairPrice, introduced its 24-hour concept in 2008 and now has 50 out of 121 outlets that stay open all night. Sheng Siong converted 27 of its 33 stores into 24-hour ones last year, up from just three in 2012. Cold Storage has four such outlets and Giant has 38. Smaller player Prime, one of the early movers in 2005, also has 10 stores that cater to night owls.
One well-known pioneer is, of course, Mustafa Centre in Little India, which started 24-hour operations in 2003. Till today, all its departments - from its supermarket and travel agency, to its pharmacy and post office - stay open all night long.
The greater prevalence of round-the-clock shopping reflects the changing lifestyles of Singaporeans, said retail expert Amos Tan, who lectures at Singapore Polytechnic’s business school. "People now work longer hours and flexible shifts, so to them, a supermarket closing at 9pm is considered early. And convenience stores may not stock the products they are looking for."
At a FairPrice store at Khatib Central, Mr Tan Loon Kit, 51, and Madam Teo Wee Hui, 44, both taxi drivers, were with their six-year-old son on a midnight excursion to buy frozen fish fillets and rice for the next day’s lunch.
Restaurant supervisor Bryan Dantes, 37, was craving chips and soft drinks after his shift ended at 11.30pm.
Meanwhile, at Bishan’s Giant store, administrative manager Susan Tan, 56, said shopping at midnight was not necessarily faster, as only one or two counters were open, even though there were fewer people.
"I usually buy from the other supermarkets which have better products, but when I work late, this is the only one that’s open," said Ms Tan, picking up some fruit and vegetables for cooking the next day.
Behind her was master’s degree student Srinivas Shanker, who bought some nutrition bars and biscuits following an evening class at Singapore Management University. "This place is convenient for snack runs when I’m studying late into the night," he said.
While FairPrice and Sheng Siong could not provide exact figures, both chains said they have seen an increase in the number of people shopping late at night.
But even though sales have gone up, costs can add up too.
The longer hours come with additional electricity and labour costs.Sheng Siong, for instance, pays night-shift staff about 13 per cent more than those who work during the day.
Still, 24-hour operations do provide convenience not just to consumers, but also retailers. Supermarket chains say it gives them more time to replenish stocks and tidy the store for the morning crowd. Fresh produce is usually delivered in the early hours of the morning.
For Singapore, the greater availability of late-night stores can help burnish its image as a vibrant shopping destination.
This can help "position Singapore as a city that never sleeps", said retail expert Mr Tan. Tourists can also buy local goods from supermarket stores such as FairPrice, he added.
But the post-midnight shopping experience can yield surprises. That was what polytechnic student Jeremy Sim, 18, and his friends discovered at Khatib Central FairPrice on their way to a party early on Wednesday morning.
"We’re going to buy beer, beer and more beer," he told The Straits Times.
But when he took the bottles to the check-out counter, the cashier shook her head - that particular outlet does not have a licence to sell alcohol between midnight and 6am. He gasped and sighed.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 6, 2013