SINGAPORE - As at March, 60 per cent of heartland merchants have listed their items on e-commerce platforms and used online marketing tools.
This is in part thanks to the Heartlands Go Digital programme launched by Enterprise Singapore (ESG) in October 2020. At that point, just 6 per cent of heartland merchants were online.
The programme aims to support about 20,000 retailers and food and beverage enterprises in the heartland in their digital adoption, storefront enhancement, and development of marketing skills.
While its launch was timely as businesses were driven online during the Covid-19 pandemic, the digital commerce programme stemmed from the Government's broader revitalisation efforts in the heartland.
For instance, businesses can tap advertising and promotion tools on Carousell, Fave, Vaniday, Shopback and Foodpanda Shop at a discount for their marketing activities and to create online business profiles.
Merchants are also trained to use e-payment solutions, and to leverage social media to promote their products and engage customers.
Some merchants like Ms Christina Ang, 70, faced a steep learning curve when she started selling on Shopee and Facebook.
"I had zero digital knowledge so I had to learn everything from scratch, from posting products, taking product images and writing product descriptions," said the owner of lingerie store Blissful Collections at Block 32 New Market Road in Chinatown.
"It was difficult to familiarise myself with and manage all the different accounts. I also had to make it a habit to remember to check all the different platforms."
Over at Toa Payoh Central, Mr Tony Yau, 68, said his biscuit shop, The Biscuit House, has adopted PayNow. He added that a small shop like his does not have the resources such as staff to handle e-commerce fulfilment.
Merchants The Straits Times spoke to said the benefits of adopting e-commerce outweighed the challenges.
They cited advantages such as increased sales, and greater convenience for themselves as well as consumers.
With time and practice, merchants also gradually became accustomed to using the platforms. Ms Ang, for one, said using e-payment services such as PayNow are now "not an issue".
The transition process was also made smooth for some merchants, thanks to help they received from Heartland Enterprise Centre Singapore (HECS), which is under The Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore.
Madam Lim Kar Sim, owner of clothing store Sin Heng in New Market Road, said business advisers from HECS helped her set up her store's Google My Business profile in early April. This enables details about her shop, such as its nature of business and opening hours, to appear in search engine results.
"They helped file all the information and verification for us," said the 64-year-old.
Madam Lim is now looking into participating in the Community Development Council Voucher Scheme.
She is keen to sign up for the Heartland Visual Merchandising programme, which helps merchants improve their product placement and digital content creation, and to redesign their physical storefront to attract more customers.
In February, e-commerce platform Lazada announced its own initiative - Radin Mas Marketplace @ Lazada - to help heartland merchants, and is currently onboarding merchants.
It aims to help all 233 heartland shops and 348 hawkers in the Telok Blangah neighbourhood list their products on a dedicated Radin Mas Marketplace page slated to launch next month.
The firm will also teach stallholders how to engage younger customers and feature their goods in an engaging manner, such as through live streaming.
Bess Choice, a home appliance store which has been in operation at Block 80 Redhill Lane since 2011, is one of the businesses on board.
"Participating in the Lazada initiative will definitely boost my business," said Ms Loh, 62, the owner of Bess Choice.
"I'm not good at IT, so I'm still learning. This is a must to learn."
A Lazada survey on online shopping habits of consumers in South-east Asia found that 70 per cent of Singaporean respondents consider online shopping integral to their routines, while 85 per cent said that they now spend more online than in physical stores.
Low prices, affordable shipping and convenience were key reasons why South-east Asians shop online, with Singapore shoppers showing the strongest preference for doorstep delivery.
On the importance of digitalisation, Mr Joseph Zhang, director of heartland enterprise division at ESG, reiterated that it was vital for heartland merchants to upgrade and adapt to changing needs.
"Enterprise Singapore will continue to work with various agencies and partners, such as HECS, to deepen the digital and manpower capabilities of the heartland shops, to help them diversify revenue channels and increase operational efficiency."
Correction note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect name for Blissful Collections, a lingerie store in Chinatown. This has been corrected.