Slow business but some hawkers in Singapore still not on food delivery apps

Some hawkers are relying on only walk-in customers instead of going on food delivery platforms. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - As the number of Covid-19 cases in Bukit Merah View Market and Food Centre climbed, Mr Koh Tong Khoon sensed bad news was coming.

The Mookata Eating House stall at Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre that he owns is not on any food delivery platform.

So when news broke that dining in would be limited to two per table instead of five, the 60-year-old decided he might keep his stall serving Thai steamboat closed.

His stall has been shut for more than a month since May 16, when tighter measures were introduced to stop the spread of Covid-19.

"Two people are too few (to cover costs). People usually eat mookata in a big group to split the cost and to finish the food."

His problem is not unique. The Straits Times spoke to 110 stallholders across eight hawker centres to understand why some of them are not on food delivery platforms and the difficulties they face on these platforms.

The commission fee - which ranges from 30 per cent to 35 per cent - was cited by 52 hawkers as a reason why they continue to rely on walk-in customers.

Mr Keith Quek, who owns the Teng Ji Fried Fish Soup stall at Tiong Bahru Food Centre, said commission fees, even when they are levied on consumers instead of on hawkers, are too high.

The 37-year-old, who uses WhyQ, added: "When people see our online prices, they will assume that we have raised prices at our stall too. For older folk, they may not be willing to accept high prices for hawker food."

But the hawkers also described other challenges. Some cited their location, which being away from housing estates would limit orders via food apps.

Others, like Mr Koh, said their food is just not suitable for delivery.

"Many mookata ingredients cannot be mixed or else the taste will be affected, so we will have to spend more to individually pack them," he added.

Hawker Pasha Siraj, 40, runs a stall at Maxwell Food Centre serving modern takes on traditional Indian dishes. The hawker centre has always attracted tourists and Central Business District workers.

However, with workers operating from home, his business has fallen by about half.

"Our business comes from office workers but we don't have a core catchment. Even if I have a loyal following of people who work in this area, they live all over Singapore and the delivery radius of most delivery apps does not extend islandwide," said the owner of LuckMeow. He also uses the WhyQ app and receives at most five orders a day.

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Despite the recent restrictions for eating in, and a potential loss of income, some hawkers still avoid using Delivery apps.

The Hawkers United page - with more than 300,000 members - has been inundated with public posts on how best to support hawkers islandwide.

But when there is a deluge of orders via social media or food apps, it can be a problem too.

The pressure to serve both online and offline customers during peak hours was another challenge, 26 hawkers told ST. And another 20 per cent said they found food delivery apps difficult to use.

Mr Ong Bing Bi is a stall assistant at 169 May Fish Soup at Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre. The 38-year-old said he struggles to upload photos of his menu onto GrabFood due to the restrictions on the size and orientation of the photos.

"Another stall assistant is 60 years old and has long-sightedness. Even though you can adjust the size of the words on the Grab order device, it's still very small for older hawkers," said Mr Ong.

To support hawkers in going digital, a work group was formed last Thursday (June 17).

The work group, which includes hawker representatives and food delivery platforms, will study ways to increase demand for hawker food sold online and to build a sustainable business model for hawker food delivery.

It is chaired by the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment and the Ministry of Communications and Information.

Communication and technology professor Lim Sun Sun said hawkers need a step-by-step approach to learn to digitalise their business.

"The older hawkers may not be that adept at using their smartphones to begin with," said Prof Lim, who is with the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

She suggested that hawkers can first learn how to use the more advanced features on their mobile phones before learning about digital banking and food delivery platforms. Peer-to-peer learning can also help, she added.

To cope with the stress of serving customers during peak hours, Professor Jochen Wirtz of the National University of Singapore suggested consolidating all the hawkers at a particular centre in a single listing.

The marketing professor said: "Hawkers can log in and indicate when they have to reject orders when they have a long queue."

They can allow another hawker to fulfil the customer's order or inform the customer that a particular dish is unavailable.

Nanyang Technological University professor Boh Wai Fong said the work group could consider more effective packaging materials for hawkers selling food items that may be challenging to deliver.

As for commission fees, Prof Boh, an information technology and operations management expert, said lower fees could be charged when customers choose to pick up items or order in advance.

Fruit juice seller Khaw Bee Tiab appreciates the ideas to put her business on a delivery platform. But the 54-year-old, whose business is down by half, said she will just rely on walk-in customers.

Ms Khaw, whose stall is at Chinatown Complex, said: "Fruit juice is not going to be nice by the time they deliver it to customers at home. The ice would have all melted, and the quality of the drink would be lowered."

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