Virus-hit Malaysian retailers offer discounts, freebies to recover from shutdown

A visitor entering the Sunway Pyramid shopping mall walks past a thermal scanner. PHOTO: SUNWAY MALLS

KUALA LUMPUR - Car wash deals at a third off the usual price. Spas throwing in free massages. A hardware shop holding a "reopening sale" with discounts of up to 50 per cent.

These are some gambits employed by Malaysian businesses as they strive to make a comeback amid an economic crisis and job losses brought on by an extended shutdown aimed at saving their lives.

Many businesses are struggling to stay afloat despite some having been allowed to resume operations for nearly two months now. Footfall in some malls has only recovered to about half the numbers at the beginning of the year, and demand for services remains weak as Malaysians continue to stay home for fear of getting infected by the coronavirus.

Thronging crowds were mainly seen in the run-up to Hari Raya Puasa and on weekends following the gradual easing of the country's movement restrictions from May 4.

A quick glance around shopping malls on weekdays now reveals half-empty shops and food courts, reflecting lingering concerns that the coronavirus has yet to be vanquished and, perhaps, how people have been hit in the pocket by the pandemic.

Mall operators such as Suria KLCC and Sunway Malls are dangling vouchers and freebies to entice shoppers back.

Restaurants have been allowed to operate at full capacity since last week, and restrictions on entertainment and leisure activities will ease from July 1, following urging from the retail and tourism sectors for the government to reopen the economy even wider.

Shoppers and business owners, however, remain wary.

"I honestly don't think it is totally safe now, and won't be surprised if a second wave comes," said Ms Lynn Meor, 44, who owns a beauty salon in Kuala Lumpur's popular Bukit Bintang shopping district and three other salons in neighbouring Selangor state.

Queuing is now a norm to ensure safe distancing in shopping malls PHOTO: SUNWAY MALLS

Beauty and hair salons resumed business from June 10, with strict safety measures in place.

Madam Sharliza Rahim, 41, said she had been to a mall only three times in the last two months.

"I would go now if I need to, but I don't think it's safe yet," the mother of three said.

New cases have remained mostly in the single digit range over the last few days, and the Health Ministry said on Wednesday (June 24) that it hopes to attain zero cases of Covid-19 by mid-July.

Health director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah said this is possible if standard operating procedures such as social distancing, wearing of masks and frequently washing or sanitising hands were strictly followed.

Visitors at shopping malls must have their temperature checked and register their details at the entrance, and repeat the same process before entering each retail outlet.

Some, like freelance writer Chow Ee-Tan, say the procedures make trips to the mall tiresome.

"I am a shopaholic. But I feel so sick and tired of all the queues and registration. It makes shopping a terrible experience, so I won't be going to buy things at the malls for some time," she said.

Others find the measures reassuring.

At a shop selling massage devices in the 1 Utama shopping mall in Selangor, salesgirl Shareen Lovelyn, 19, said: "I feel safe because we sanitise the shop daily. We also sanitise the products after people try them."

However, the number of customers has halved compared with before the partial shutdown was first implemented on March 18, she said.

Other businesses report similar woes.

"Only half of our customers are back after we opened," said a worker at a shopping mall car wash outlet, which was offering a 30 per cent discount.

Malaysia Shopping Malls Association president Teo Chiang Kok told The Straits Times that the total loss of sales suffered during the shutdown from March to May is estimated at RM1.8 billion (S$586 million). Business has recovered somewhat since then, but the situation is far from rosy.

"Footfall has now reached approximately 50 to 70 per cent and sales up to 40 per cent," Tan Sri Teo said.

Some businesses, however, are hopeful their prospects will improve by the end of the year.

"Currently, all of our malls are seeing recovery of 60 per cent to 70 per cent in footfall, and with the opening of more businesses in the entertainment and leisure category... we expect we will see more people returning to resume their shopping and dining activities in the new normal," said Mr H. C. Chan, chief executive officer of Sunway Malls & Theme Parks, which operates seven retail malls across Malaysia.

His tenants' sales have recovered by 30 to 40 per cent so far, he said, adding: "We expect recovery of 75 per cent to 85 per cent footfall by the year end."

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