Smal Change

Don't sniff at the humble HDB shops, makeshift stalls

They offer cheaper alternatives, wider options and more personal service than shops in malls

My younger son is now visiting the barber more often - but is spending less money.

He is particular about how he looks and when he started working, he used to patronise salons in Parkway Parade that would charge more than $30 for a stylist's service.

But lately he has found that Housing Board heartland trimmers can also make the cut.

Places modelled after the first wave of $10 haircut shops in malls a few years back have since taken root in more humble retail precincts - even MRT stations.

But many younger people, used to shopping online and patronising malls that have cinemas and other ritzy lifestyle options, are not very aware of the cheaper alternatives available, sometimes right at their doorstep, if they live in HDB estates.

Even if they know, they might think that the cheaper fees must mean that the operator must be cutting corners or using substandard equipment or products.

But now that my son is aware that this is not true, he is making up for lost time. He said he is getting as good a service as any he had in the past, and he does not miss the frills, like a hair wash that comes with the more pricey packages at mall salons.

Competition is so stiff now that it has got even more hairy for the spiffier outlets, with one no-frills place in Marine Parade even combing for a bigger slice of the market at $3 a pop.

And even as online shopping has decimated many bricks-and-mortar outlets, another phenomenon has sunk roots - and is flourishing - in the heartland.

You might have seen the makeshift stalls selling lingerie, clothes, even jewellery and watches, that have popped up.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

Many of the operators look like they are mainland Chinese who are peddling their goods at prices that can start from $1 for a T-shirt.

While the quality may not be top-notch, the eye-popping prices are still an irresistible draw, with customers from domestic workers to housewives happily rummaging through the chaotic assortment of goods for bargains.

"At that price, even if the clothes may not keep their shape beyond a few washes, it does not matter. You pay so little and can continually refresh your wardrobe," my wife says of this weapon to combat the rising cost of living.

Like her and my son, I have also wised up and am not turning the nose up at HDB retailers.

But if you prefer familiar names, the heartland has also drawn the bigger boys, from Guardian to Maxi-Cash. But it is often the newer shops - especially those manned by younger people - that I look out for and draw the greatest pleasure from.

Their prices may not be much lower but there is the thrill of helping them get off the starting block and bring more buzz to the community.

A plus point is often the better service offered at these shops as you can build rapport with the young folk themselves, and not deal with sales staff who come and go, and do not bother to go the extra mile.

My traditional Chinese medicine physician in Aljunied is so dedicated to providing service that he works until 1am on some days to clear the long line of patients.

"I don't provide massage, I provide treatment, and people depend on me," he says simply, charging only $40 for a half hour of service.

Sometimes, even the product range is wider. "Better to buy electrical items from HDB shops," my relative says. "Prices are often cheaper and they can deliver straightaway."

True, and they stock brands, like those from China, that are shunned by the bigger chain operators.

They are cheaper than their South Korean or Japanese rivals and may even come with some bells and whistles.

But while the cheaper rentals will give these new business folk a leg up, they will have to find their niche. How many more cutesy cafes or cake shops, say, or tuition centres or yet another wellness centre can a retail precinct sustain?

But there is certainly room for a place that offers taekwondo lessons, for example, or 24/7 gym access.

As it is, I have seen price wars among the newcomers but not everyone has the budget of Grab to absorb interim losses.

But help has come from HDB's Revitalisation of Shops scheme that was introduced in 2007 to subsidise upgrading work and promotional events for heartland retailers.

But shopping is not only about stretching your dollar; the experience of looking for a good buy - even if you may not find one - is also more rewarding and enriching than going to yet another cookie-cutter mall.

You find you are plugged more meaningfully into the community and you see the real Singapore at work, at play and at leisure.

Not forgetting the possibility that the shop you patronise may one day go on to become a big thing.

You would then be able to claim that you had helped pave the way for its expansion. Priceless.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 11, 2018, with the headline ' Don't sniff at the humble HDB shops, makeshift stalls'. Print Edition | Subscribe