Group buys for good buys

Pooling orders among neighbours helps residents snag popular food items without having to queue, enjoy bulk discounts and get to know one another better

Ms Ashley Teo (in white mask) and Ms Cheryl Guo (in black mask) distributing food orders to a nearby resident from Ms Teo's home in Sengkang. They co-host Sengkang Group Buy, compiling orders in the neighbourhood for hawker food, fruit, cakes, and even snacks from overseas. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Mrs Kelly Sia, a host for GroupBuysSG, with a bulk order of pomelos. Some other items ordered by the group include snowskin mooncakes from Raffles Singapore and milk from Hokkaido. PHOTO: KELLY SIA

Ms Cheryl Guo's pre-pandemic trips to Bangkok were never complete without a stop at 7-Eleven to stock up on pre-packaged food such as toasted cheese sandwiches. The 32-year-old digital marketing executive would even take along an extra suitcase to buy snacks such as special Pocky flavours, mushroom chips, tom yam paste and dried mango for family and friends.

Amid the dearth of travel this year, Ms Guo has found a new way to get her fix.

In May, during the circuit breaker, she launched Sengkang Group Buy (@sengkanggroupbuy on Instagram) to collate food orders from residents in her estate. Neighbours split the delivery fee or pool orders to hit the minimum sum for free delivery to the organiser's home, where they collect the items.

Ms Guo, who is married with no children, started out ordering from popular local eateries. These include pastries from Loong Fatt Tau Sar Piah in Balestier, which draws queues of up to an hour, and Brotherbird Milk and Croissants, which sells out online within minutes.

She later branched out to items from overseas, working with importers to bring in food such as sandwiches and pre-cooked bento meals from 7-Eleven in Thailand.

Banana cakes from Hiap Joo Bakery in Johor Baru, kueh lapis from Batam and tai yang bing or malt sugar pastries from Taiwan are other hot favourites brought in by various group buys.

In the past few months, at least 50 estate group buys have sprung up islandwide as home deliveries burgeoned during and after the circuit breaker.

These include eight in estates such as Bishan, Bukit Gombak and Woodlands which are affiliated with Sengkang Group Buy and operate in a similar way. They do not mark up the price of food but charge a $2 administrative fee for each order.

Others such as GroupBuysSG (@groupbuyssg), which operates islandwide, charge between $5 and $9 for deliveries and a $3 administrative fee for self-collection by buyers living beyond the hosts' estate. Self-collection for residents within the same estate is free.

Most organisers have a day job, but some can earn a tidy sum from this side hustle.

Ms Ashley Teo, 33, who is self-employed and works in the finance industry, began co-hosting Sengkang Group Buy in August.

She coordinates about two orders a day, spending about four to five days on it every alternate week, and earns about $2,000 a month from this. It helps make up for the shortfall in her main source of income, which fell by a third due to the pandemic.

Other organisers like GroupBuysSG founder Winson Lee, 32, see it as a community initiative rather than a business opportunity.

Mr Lee maintains that he and a team of about five volunteers do not profit from the orders they collect. Delivery fees go wholly to drivers, who have been affected by the pandemic.

The creative director, who lives in a Housing Board flat in Pasir Ris, launched the group buy in June after combining orders with his neighbours to hit the minimum order for delivery from Tai Cheong Bakery, known for its egg tarts.

When friends and neighbours started asking for the next round of orders, he realised there was a gap in the market.

"We couldn't be the only ones in Singapore with this problem, so I decided to offer the service to more communities. We want to help as many people as possible order food that is inaccessible to them," he says.

Volunteers organise one or two group buys each week, taking turns to have the food delivered to their homes. From there, delivery drivers send the food to buyers islandwide.

The group receives about 80 orders each time, sometimes scoring bulk discounts, which they say they then pass on to customers.

Besides supporting delivery drivers and small local businesses, sociologists say these group buys are a way to foster kampung spirit in an increasingly disconnected world.

Dr Tan Ern Ser, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, says: "Through regular interactions, neighbours would likely get to know one another better and discover more common interests, thereby forming social ties and a social network within the estate."

Such mutual support from a close-knit community can help members ride out a crisis such as the current pandemic, he adds.

Indeed, Queenstown group buy organiser Tan Jie Min, 36, says the chief perk is that "hi-bye interactions have become real conversations". The retail industry executive started hosting group buys in August.

Similarly, Ms Teo of Sengkang Group Buy notes that a sense of community has taken root in the WhatsApp groups she runs. Besides talking about food and discussing what to order next, members seek help for everything from handyman contacts to places for good durians.

While new hosts have sprouted up across the island, group buys in estates such as Sengkang and Punggol, with a younger demographic, tend to see more demand. Hosts say residents there are more likely to keep abreast of food trends and appreciate the convenience of lunchtime hawker deliveries as they largely work from home.

In the mature estate of Queenstown, for instance, Ms Tan hosts one to two group buys every day and gets about 10 orders each time.

In comparison, group buys in nearby Telok Blangah receive an average of 50 orders - many of which come from young parents or couples without children.

For some, group purchases have replaced home-cooked meals and even trips to the grocery store.

Mrs Wendy Tan, who lives in Sengkang, got hooked on the convenience of group buys during the circuit breaker and now makes about seven to 10 orders of food, fruit and desserts every week.

"Even though we are now able to go out, we have become accustomed to having food delivered after doing it for so many months," says the administrative assistant, 43, who has no children.

For mother-of-three Sylvia Ng, 46, weekly food deliveries from GroupBuysSG have become a welcome pick-me-up for her husband and three children, aged between 10 and 16.

"At the end of the week, it is nice to give ourselves a treat with food that I don't have to make a detour or queue up specially to buy," says the marketing manager, who lives in Pasir Ris. She has purchased items such as banana cake from Hiap Joo Bakery and kueh from Ah Yee's Soon Kueh in Joo Chiat.

Even as more return to the office, demand from customers remains healthy. Sengkang Group Buy, which has three full WhatsApp groups comprising about 750 members in total, has a waitlist of hopefuls wanting to join. Its hosts do not intend to open a fourth chat group lest they are unable to cope with the spiralling demand.

And Mr Lee of GroupBuysSG believes that this trend is here to stay.

He says: "I believe group buys are going to become a way of life as people harness the power of group savings and minimise waste by not ordering too much to hit the minimum spend on their own."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2020, with the headline Group buys for good buys. Subscribe