Heartening presence in heartland

The latest government initiative to help more than 1,300 heartland retailers with some $29 million to improve business is heartening news.

In an age of ultra-competitive, slick retail merchants - seen in glitzy shopping malls, some even within residential complexes, and many with online and mobile app platforms - it is a wonder that neighbourhood shops have managed to stay afloat so far.

It is vital that these ubiquitous Singapore versions of the classic American "mom-and-pop" stores survive. They remain relevant because they contribute to the 3Cs that matter to HDB neighbourhoods - convenience, cheapness and character.

These factors are likely to determine if heartland retailers can continue to operate profitably and hang on to the niche they have carved out for themselves. As the overall shopping landscape evolves, HDB shopkeepers must not lose sight of their customers' needs as they strive to combine modern methods of doing business with the personalised service that people appreciate. They could leverage technology, for example, to widen their reach via mobile phones. By working within a merchants association, they can offer options like taking orders via texting or showing their wares on a website.

Heartland retailers must organise themselves to stand out from other places where people gather to shop or mill around. To be an attractive shopping cluster, they could help refer residents to each other's businesses and offer joint promotions rather than operate in isolation.

There is a cultural connect as well. Together with hawker centres, heartland shops give neighbourhoods the priceless feel of home and intergenerational continuity. Familiar faces and trading activities enliven spaces. Without neighbourhood shops, towns would not be the same.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'Heartening presence in heartland'. Subscribe