Poh Kim Video: Last surviving home-video retailer refuses to bow out

Poh Kim Video founder Lim Chee Yong is banking on selling 4K DVDs, which he believes will appeal to film buffs as the ultra high-definition resolution shows up even the finest wrinkles on a subject's face.
Poh Kim Video founder Lim Chee Yong is banking on selling 4K titles, which he believes will appeal to film buffs as the ultra high-definition resolution shows up even the finest wrinkles on a subject's face.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Technological advances have changed the game for many businesses, forcing some to close and others to relook their plans. In the third part of a weekly series, The Straits Times looks at how Singapore firms have tried to address the disruptions they face.

The rise of online movie streaming has led to the demise of former giants in home-video retailing: HMV, Laserflair, VideoEzy and TS Video.

But last survivor Poh Kim Video refuses to give up the brick-and- mortar business that has lived through multiple technological obsolescence: VHS video tapes, laser discs and video CDs.

"I won't give up so easily. I feel for the business as Poh Kim has been around for 33 years," said its founder Lim Chee Yong, 58, in Mandarin.

Poh Kim - which opened its 21st outlet at Northpoint Shopping Centre in Yishun two months ago - has survived on strict cost management and, more recently, the fortuity of being the only home-video chain in Singapore today. The last of its competitors, Laserflair, closed in early 2016.

Serendipitously, it is getting help from a third-year National University of Singapore computer science student who had a proposal for its return to profitability.

It is also counting on the sale of film titles produced using 4K technology. 4K sports ultra high- definition resolution that shows up even the finest wrinkles or faintest freckles on a subject's face.

Mr Lim was 25 years old when he started Poh Kim at Bukit Timah Plaza in 1984, renting out video tapes.

At its peak in the early 2000s, Poh Kim had 38 stores islandwide, mostly in housing estates, riding on a boom in home entertainment consumption.

  • Films in 4K

  • Poh Kim Video is counting on the sale of DVD movie titles produced using 4K technology to cozy up to film enthusiasts. 4K sports ultra high-definition resolution that shows up even the finest wrinkles or faintest freckles on a subject's face.

    In March, Poh Kim started selling four new titles in 4K - The Accountant, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. It has since sold a total of about 200 pieces.

    Since last year, Poh Kim has also become the sole distributor for Walt Disney, Warner Bros and Universal Pictures home-video titles in Singapore. English movies account for half of Poh Kim's total sales at present.

    The other half comes from selling Korean and Hong Kong drama series - its traditional business. The two best-selling Korean drama series are:

    Love In The Moonlight: About 700 sets sold since its release in February .

    Doctor Crush: About 600 sets sold since its release last month.

    Irene Tham

Ms Madelynne Hoe, 60, its Thomson Plaza branch retail supervisor, said video rental was "very hot" in the 1980s. Hong Kong TV series such as gongfu drama The Legend Of The Condor Heroes (1983) would fly off the shelves.

"From the time we opened at 10.30am, customers never stopped streaming in until we closed at 10pm," said Ms Hoe, an employee of more than 30 years.

In the 1990s, Poh Kim switched to selling and renting laser discs, whose superior video and audio quality made them a popular choice among film enthusiasts.

At the same time, the retailer also started selling video CDs, which were less than half the size of laser discs and were cheaper.

By the early 2000s, laser discs and video CDs had been superseded by DVDs, which, despite being the size of a video CD, boasted higher digital video and sound quality, and a larger capacity for longer movies.

During those boom years, Poh Kim would gross sales of up to $15 million a year, said Mr Lim.

But since 2008, business has been on a steady decline due to streaming and illegal downloading from the Internet.

Since 2012, legal channels such as Apple iTunes, Google Play and Netflix have also been giving brick-and-mortar home-video shops a run for their money.

"Now, we are lucky if we can get $5 million in sales a year," said Mr Lim.

33 YEARS AND COUNTING

I won't give up so easily. I feel for the business as Poh Kim has been around for 33 years.

MR LIM CHEE YONG, founder of Poh Kim Video, on refusing to give up his brick- and-mortar business.

So far, Poh Kim has been breaking even by watching its costs keenly. Specifically, it limits the size of most of its outlets to less than 400 sq ft each and the number of outlets in each residential area.

It has also closed stores when rents climbed and reopened them at cheaper locations to serve the same neighbourhood.

Its current 30-strong workforce is less than half the 70 it employed during the early 2000s. One-third of the staff have been with the company for more than 20 years.

Ms Hoe said working for Poh Kim has been rewarding. Many of her customers now have children and grandchildren and they still return to the shop.

"I trust that my boss can keep the business going," said Ms Hoe, who is also a movie buff.

Poh Kim's return-to-profitabi- lity strategy comprises two components - peddling 4K titles and building an online presence.

"We are targeting a group of customers who are particular about audio and visual quality, and who want to own their movies in convenient storage media," said Mr Lim. He believes that Internet streaming is not able to satisfy such demand.

In March, the chain started selling four new titles in 4K - The Accountant, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them - and has sold a total of about 200 copies of these titles.

"It's still early days and the technology has great potential. Many people are not aware of the benefits of 4K," he said.

Customers will need a 4K player and a 4K TV to enjoy the ultra-high resolution.

Mr Lim is in talks with 4K TV and console manufacturers for cross-product promotion. The idea is to give TV buyers free 4K movie titles.

The 4K hardware will be promoted at all Poh Kim outlets.

Going online and converting online interactions to sales are also big on Poh Kim's agenda after Mr Lim received a "business pitch" from Ms Janel Heseri, 22.

A Korean-drama fan, Ms Heseri first met Mr Lim at last year's Singapore International Film Festival at Marina Bay Sands. Earlier this year, she approached him with a business idea, hoping to hone her skills in computer science.

She said: "I'm aware that a lot of brick-and-mortar retailers are struggling, with online retailers eating their lunch."

She convinced Mr Lim to let her redesign Poh Kim's website and manage all online interactions with customers, including those on its Facebook page.

The goal is to convert every interaction into a sale - whether at its physical stores or via its online store, which offers free delivery for purchases of $40 and more.

A loyal customer, Ms Fenny Lim, 43, said she has been buying from Poh Kim because of its good service. She gets prompt notifications, which she signed up for, whenever a new Korean drama series is released.

Ms Lim, who works in human resource, said: "Of course, I can watch them on the Internet but the shows are not dubbed into Mandarin, unlike the DVD sets. This is why I'll always buy a physical copy of the discs, which I share with my relatives."

•Do you know of a local company that has faced tech disruption and is doing something about it? Let us know at stnewsdesk@sph.com.sg with the e-mail subject title: Tech disruption series.

Correction note: This story has been edited to reflect technical accuracy. In our earlier story, we referred to 4K DVD titles, it should be 4K titles.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Last surviving home-video retailer refuses to bow out'. Print Edition | Subscribe