SINGAPORE - It used to be an indulgence once or twice a month but lately, Ms Susan Lim has been going for weekly massage sessions at a parlour in Ang Mo Kio Central.
The frequent visits happened after the circuit breaker, when she found a masseuse she trusts near her home in Ang Mo Kio. The $75 90-minute sessions bring her monthly massage budget from $80 a month to around $300.
But it is still affordable, says the sales manager for an electronic components company. Suffering from chronic back pains, she has spent the last few years trying massages at various places.
The 45-year-old would also go for rub-downs in Malaysia, China, Bangkok and Batam when on holiday.
"Now, I found a good masseuse - it's near my house and it works for me. I go often because of convenience," says Ms Lim, who works from home more these days.
"I'll keep going until my body starts to feel better - or when my budget needs to be cut down."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the pandemic, the massage industry here is humming along nicely, after being badly hit when Covid-19 first surfaced in Singapore. Wellness and beauty services, which were suspended during the circuit breaker, have since resumed - although operators must observe safety guidelines.
Now with more facing aches and pains working from home, and with borders still closed, many are turning to local operators to get their massage fix.
A check with several establishments shows that demand for wellness treatments is slowly but steadily picking up, though not entirely back to pre-Covid levels.
While some of its former clients did not return after the circuit breaker, tuina massage clinic Ji TCM Health and Wellness in Ang Mo Kio Central has new ones to make up for it.
"Some of them used to go to Malaysia and Indonesia because it's more economical, but now they can't," says the clinic's operator Ang Chong Peng.
He has also had new customers tell him their posture working at home worsened as they lack "the right tables and chairs".
Business, meanwhile, has been brisk at local massage operator Natureland.
Founded in 2012, the massage chain has seven outlets islandwide, and will open its first premium outlet at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands in October.
Managing director Fion Wu says: "During the circuit breaker, even though our operations were halted, we still maintained our full staff strength and provided training for them to get ready for the new norm. Thanks to our loyal customers and good staff, our business has recovered after the circuit breaker."
At a beauty services industry event in August, Minister of State for Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling pointed out that there remains a strong local demand for beauty and wellness services here even during the pandemic.
Speaking at the launch of the Beauty Services Competency Framework (BSCF), which aims to build a skilled workforce and ensure consistent service standards for the industry, Ms Low said: "People still want to look good and feel great. In fact, given the current travel restrictions, more people are having to look for spa and beauty services locally."
Changing consumer preferences
New trends impacting the beauty industry have emerged in this time.
Like with the retail and food industries, there has been a shift towards embracing technology for wellness operators.
Other trends include a growing consumer preference for flexibility and convenience in services, personalised experiences, and higher expectations of in-salon experiences, according to a press release from the Beauty Services Alliance, which launched the BSCF.
Players have been quick to catch on. Two digital platforms - mobile massage app Theraply and beauty booking portal Tropika Club - sprang up in the last seven months to give consumers a more seamless experience when they want to get a wellness fix.
In July, Natureland Care acquired medical aesthetics chain The DRx Group, which offers a range of skin and body treatments.
The marriage of both brands paves the way for a new realm of aesthetics and wellness. The Natureland Premium outlet at MBS will be the first to offer both DRx facials and Natureland massage treatments.
A patron herself of DRx "since its early days", Ms Wu says: "Since 2018, we were exploring the aesthetics business as a possible diversification that has synergy within our group.
"In every crisis, there will be some interesting opportunities in the market. Organic growth and expansion planning was possible for us because of our prudent management during the good times."
Mr Frank Thong - CEO of The DRx Group - predicts that more in the industry will follow suit.
Such mergers allow the entities involved to benefit from each other's customer databases, as well as shared resources and joint-marketing exercises.
"One can expect to see more massage spas offering beauty services. The DRx Group and Natureland naturally share many strategic and operational capabilities," he says.
The DRx Group, founded 21 years ago, recently opened a new clinic in the East Coast this month, one unit down from a Natureland branch.
This will help cater to consumers who prefer to travel less these days, to get their grooming fix all at once, says Mr Thong, predicting "reduced shopping frequency and a preference for trusted brands" as other significant changes in post-Covid consumer behaviour.
"For us, being able to offer more at one encounter by two prominent name brands, sets new standards that would ultimately benefit the local wellness and beauty industry, and consumers."
CREATING THE 'GRAB OF MASSAGES' TO COMBAT ERRANT PROVIDERS
Mobile massages are no longer a novelty, but how would you like to book your in-home treatment as easily as you order food delivery?
With her on-demand massage app Theraply, launched in February, founder Valerie De Costa, 43, hopes to eventually become "the Grab of massages".
The mother of three boys has been offering facial and massage services, mostly to mothers, for 19 years at a brick-and-mortar establishment called Nouri Face & Body Concepts in the Lavender area.
Over the years, she had toyed with the idea of rebranding, but it was the preponderance of "errant practices" in the massage industry that finally pushed her to do it.
Since 2011, she started noticing more new clients with the same complaints - having overpaid at other parlours without seeing results and being pressured to upgrade their packages.
"I observed that the market had opened up to less-than-capable freelance therapists and (copycats)," she says. "Wellness spas were using aggressive and dishonest tactics and forcing people to sign up for expensive packages that did not produce results."
As consumers lost "trust" in the industry, this impacted her own business, she adds. "Pushy salespeople made it harder to speak to clients and convince them on what treatments they need. Customers looked at us with fear and lumped us together with errant providers."
To address this, she began developing the app in 2018, wanting to create a transparent platform where customers could book what they wanted with no risk of being upsold. Users have a virtual wallet and calendar to manage their sessions, and can browse available packages at their discretion.
While Theraply started out focusing on postpartum and prenatal massages, it is branching out with more general treatments such as deep-tissue, Swedish and aromatherapy massages. Prices range from $90 for a lactation massage to $110 for a postnatal massage; deep-tissue massages are $98.
With no physical outlets, a therapist goes to the customer's home with a massage bed, towels, and oils. "When you have brick and mortar, you transfer the cost to customers," says Madam De Costa.
Besides looking out for customers, the former therapist hopes Theraply can create a better working environment for massage therapists.
"Many often spend long hours at work and are pressured into hitting high sales targets, having to bear their own transport and meal costs," she says, adding that she has seen poor work-life balance take a toll on many a therapist's home life.
"Most people don't respect the trade and are not willing to pay for it," adds Madam De Costa, who employs around 15 locals and permanent residents.
Her staff can choose their work hours and are paid by the number of jobs they take. They are ferried to assignments via the company van, which is deep-cleaned every two hours.
Launching just before the circuit breaker might have seemed like bad timing, but Madam De Costa made the most of it, using the downtime to do online training with her therapists.
The pandemic may have even helped business. Customers are "more open than before" to having treatments done in the comfort of their homes.
Many also avoid visiting spas, she adds, to minimise the risk of catching Covid-19.
"But when we go to their homes, it's more controlled. Clients know they can vet the visitors they accept into their homes. They get to see us sanitising our massage beds and keeping ourselves clean in front of them."
She plans to expand her team and will provide basic training to anyone who wants to join, "especially Singaporeans looking to make a career switch or who just got retrenched". New therapists must fulfil a minimum of 300 hours of training before they can serve customers.
She hopes to see more in the industry pivot to offering mobile services.
"I feel our industry is lacking in the integration of tech. We hope to lead the way for more companies to digitalise their business and come up with more ethical practices."
ONE-STOP PORTAL BRINGS BEAUTY SERVICES ONLINE
For those itching to explore a wide variety of beauty services at a steal, newly launched Tropika Club collates everything in one place.
The platform has more than 4,000 listings of beauty, wellness and fitness offerings from a growing pool of more than 200 merchants. Services range from massages and eyelash extensions to hairdressing and body waxing.
And at certain times of the day for certain providers, you can snag discounts of up to 50 per cent off. For instance, a massage at Impression Beauty salon in Stamford Road is half-price any time before 6pm.
If the concept sounds familiar, Tropika Club founder Louis Lye, 33, and his partners are not afraid to admit where they found their inspiration.
"It originated from our use of restaurant reservation platform Eatigo," he says. "We were impressed by the concept - for cafes and restaurants to fill up their off-peak capacity by offering discounts. We figured this could also be applied to the beauty, wellness and fitness industry."
The banker by training indulges in beauty and grooming packages frequently. Over the years, he befriended salon owners and developed a better understanding of the industry.
He saw an opportunity to plug a gap when beauty booking app Vaniday announced its closure in November last year. Vaniday relaunched earlier this year.
It took six months to develop the Tropika Club portal and onboard merchants. The platform launched officially at the end of July.
It was an opportune time to launch and help businesses given the current climate, says Mr Lye, who works full-time as an agency development manager with a financial and wealth planning firm.
"When Covid-19 happened, it disrupted many businesses. They wanted to embrace digitalisation, but many were not sure how to list their services online.
"We realised that while they are aware of the market and consumers shifting online, they do not understand intricacies such as SEO (search engine optimisation) or backlinks. They weren't sure how to begin and were not ready to invest large sums to establish an online presence," he adds.
The platform hence helps to list merchants' profiles and services online in one place, with merchants free to set off-peak promotions. Tropika Club earns a small booking fee when a customer successfully books and pays via the portal.
To ensure authenticity, all merchant listings are integrated with Google Reviews, allowing potential customers to make informed decisions. The platform also has the ability to search for services by location - a commonly requested feature from early customers.
Since its launch, Tropika Club has crossed 1,000 sign-ups. It saw around 700 bookings within the first month, and the top merchant, beauty chain Wellaholic, received 110 bookings with a total revenue of $19,000.
The discounts are a big draw. So far, nine in 10 customers book services with off-peak discounts, says Mr Lye. "More customers are working from home and hence are able to indulge in off-peak beauty and wellness services."
Eyelash salon Perky Lash, which is also listed on other beauty booking platforms, has seen business improve by 15 per cent since getting onboard Tropika Club.
Half of its weekly bookings at its two outlets are for off-peak timings, which are currently at 50 per cent off, says the brand's marketing executive Angelina Foo.
"It has helped us gain more new bookings and reach out to new customers. The platform is user-friendly, so we are able to set promotions on our own. It is also more flexible, where customers can choose their preferred date and timing," she says.
There are plans to develop an app version of Tropika Club in the future.
"We recognise that beauty booking apps and portals have come and gone over the years. What makes Tropika Club different is our focus on creating relationships with merchants," says Mr Lye. "We support them with featured listings and priority search features as well as articles, video content creation and social media.
"It will take us some time to gain traction with Singaporeans. But we hope to continue engaging both merchants and customers on a regular basis and grow our user base on both counts."
Correction note: This article has been edited for accuracy.