SINGAPORE - Second-generation stall owner Sim Ah Yoke used to fear digital tools as she was not familiar with them. But now she hopes going online will give a much-needed boost to sales amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Customers have cut back on spending due to the uncertain economic situation and there is also a lack of demand from shoppers from overseas," said Ms Sim, 52, who sells frozen steamboat items at Chinatown Complex, Singapore's largest hawker centre.
She is among 20 hawkers at Chinatown Complex who are selling food, decorations and clothes for Chinese New Year on a pilot online store.
Some of them, such as Ms Sim, are going digital for the first time.
They hope the platform will drive sales in the lead-up to Chinese New Year as the pandemic has dampened demand in the usually busy festive season.
The initiative is part of Double Happiness - a programme that aims to promote hawker culture and Chinese New Year traditions. Double Happiness, which runs until next Sunday, is organised by the Chinatown Complex Hawkers' Association (CCHA) and is supported by the Singapore Tourism Board.
Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo said merchants hope to create new lines of business and broaden their customer base by having an online presence.
The forthcoming Chinese New Year is likely to be more muted but Mrs Teo believes Singaporeans will keep the festive spirit alive.
"I think it's inevitable that (there is more muted demand) as people are concerned not only about the pandemic, but also about the economy and jobs. But I believe that Singaporeans have shown a great deal of resilience throughout the pandemic period.
"I can also see that many people are determined to find ways to continue to honour their family relationships, but doing so in a safe way," said Mrs Teo, who was the guest of honour at the launch of Double Happiness on Saturday.
Mr Tan Ming Han, 35, team lead of CCHA's digital and media sub-committee, hopes the e-store will bring footfall back to the complex.
Shoppers can order items on the e-store, and choose to collect them from Chinatown Complex or have them delivered from Feb 1 to 10.
Besides the e-store, other initiatives in the Double Happiness programme include daily Facebook Live streams about festive traditions and hawker culture; guided tours of Chinatown Complex; and workshops such as hongbao (red packet) holder making.
There are also artworks at Chinatown Complex, such as a trick-eye mural, by local artist Ms Biddy Low, 42.
Details about the programme are available at this website.
More stalls will come on board the e-store, depending on the success of the project, said Mr Tan. The platform is run by CCHA and students from the Institute of Technical Education College Central's School of Design and Media.
Older hawkers used to fear technology because they were not familiar with it, but they are now increasingly adopting online solutions amid Singapore's digital push, said Mr Tan, 35, who is also a hawker.
"They want to come on board, join the bandwagon and have fun (on these platforms)," he said.
Ms Petrova Ang, who sells cheongsams at her stall Matsuzaki in Chinatown Complex, hopes the online initiative will drive orders.
Customers are now buying fewer cheongsams, compared with previous years, as they plan to do less visiting, said Ms Ang, 58.
The Chinese New Year Bazaar at Chinatown also used to bring the crowds into Chinatown Complex, but the event has been called off due to Covid-19, she noted.
But not all businesses around the island are facing a dearth of customers.
Sang Hock Guan - a bak kwa stall in Ang Mo Kio that only accepts walk-in orders - had 20 customers lined up when it opened at 10.30am.
An employee who only wanted to be known as Ms Tan, said: "We limit our pre-orders so that we can reserve some bak kwa for the walk-in customers, and we do not accept orders by phone during the festive season."
A long-time customer who only wanted to be known as Mr New, said that he only buys bak kwa from Sang Hock Guan. "For me, it's not a hassle. Because if you like the taste, people will queue for it. Even if it's two hours, I'd queue," the 47-year-old said.
Crowds were also seen in other parts of Singapore, such as at the annual Chinese New Year Fair organised by Takashimaya at Ngee Ann City, which is taking place at a smaller event space at B1 instead of its usual B2 atrium venue.
Madam Sharon Wong, a housewife in her 50s, noted that the department store was still crowded despite the pandemic. She said: "This is a serious matter that we should not take lightly. Still, I think Chinese New Year is a tradition you need to celebrate."
Mr Terence Teo, 55, said that he was concerned about Covid-19 hence he came earlier in the day to avoid the crowds.
He added: "Some relatives we only see once a year during Chinese New Year. With Covid, it's a bit of a pity that we can't go (visiting as much anymore)."