COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: Slow business, supply issues hit small minimarts and provision shops, but mid-sized outlets see boom

Manager of provision shop Zheng Rong Trading and Distribution Ms Zhang Wei Ling packing dried goods. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - In Mr Faisal Mohamathu's minimart in Tanjong Pagar, tinned foods and instant noodles fill the shelves, while bags of rice and toilet paper are neatly stacked at the back.

These are items that have been flying off the shelves at supermarkets across Singapore over the past month as increasingly tighter measures have been put in place to stem the community transmission of the coronavirus.

But Mr Mohamathu laments that he does not get the same crowd as the FairPrice outlet in the nearby Tanjong Pagar Plaza.

"We sell everything that's available at the supermarket, but they're bigger and have more options so most people will prefer to go there. It's very tough to do business nowadays," said the 35-year-old, who has been running Alfa H Mart, located on the ground level of The Pinnacle @ Duxton, for almost six years.

Without office workers and students to patronise his store since the start of the circuit breaker period, his sales are now entirely dependent on the residents living nearby and have dropped by 30 per cent.

A check across nine grocery stores in Housing Board estates paints a similar picture - the long queues at supermarkets seldom spill over to the smaller players.

Their smaller range of goods and less competitive prices were pinpointed as the main reasons for their slower business. On the flip side, they also lose business when they run out of sought-after staples such as instant noodles and flour, as suppliers deprioritise these small stores' orders.

Those hit especially hard are the smaller minimarts and traditional provision shops, whose owners said business has remained the same or even dropped, as fewer people are venturing out of their homes.

Membership points and rebates at the big supermarket chains are also luring customers away from family-run minimarts.

Lian Jia Low, manager at 48 Vegetable, which has three outlets selling fresh produce and canned goods. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Ms Mabel Foong, 49, the person-in-charge at Kai Soon Supermarket in Hougang, said: "At FairPrice you can get points, Sheng Siong has lucky draws. How can our minimart compete? People come here to buy ice cream and potato chips but they don't really shop for their weekly groceries here."

She added that business has remained the same on most days, with spikes in sales only when the nearest FairPrice outlet has long queues, as some customers look to them to skip the queues.

Mr Lian Jia Low, 26, manager of 48 Vegetable, which has three stores selling fresh produce and a selection of non-perishable items, said its turnover has fallen by 40 per cent, as most flock to the nearby wet markets or supermarkets.

But even then, he acknowledged that the overall crowd around his store at Bedok North Street 1 has thinned drastically. "There are less people out now, so competition among shops is fiercer," he said.

But it is a different story for the mid-sized supermarkets and minimart chains with at least three outlets ST spoke to.

These grocery chains, which offer a wide variety of goods comparable to the big names, have seen a boost in sales, especially on panic-buying days after major announcements from the Government.

Mr William Heng, 54, executive director of Heng's Family Group, which has 11 minimarts, said: "Every time PM Lee makes an announcement, my business will be good because people will start queuing up outside.

"On the one hand, I wish there'll be announcements everyday but on the other, when people hoard, my staff have to work harder and they are already risking their lives to work. It's really a headache," he said.

Although overall footfall has fallen by 10 per cent on regular days, Mr Heng said sales have not been badly hit.

At his main store at Block 567 Pasir Ris Street 51, which has been in operation for 27 years, his workers do between 30 and 50 home deliveries daily to neighbouring blocks.

Grocery chain U Stars Supermarket has seen an increase in sales of almost 50 per cent across their 25 stores, which includes two 10,000 sq ft hypermarkets in Keat Hong and Punggol.

Head of corporate services Cliff Heng, 38, said: "Given that people can't travel far, they will go to whichever supermarket is closest to them, especially if they're buying groceries that are heavy. We have a lot of loyal customers but recently also quite a few new faces, such as young couples who are now starting to cook at home."

Associate Professor Lawrence Loh from the National University of Singapore Business School said that big players are often at the top of the mind for many consumers as a one-stop-shop.

He said: "It's the young people who are going out to do the shopping these days so naturally they like big brands and names. Some may go to supermarkets out of habit. Even 7-11 convenience stores are taking away businesses from minimarts."

Ms Lim Xiu Ru, a lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic's School of Business, said smaller players lack the sophisticated supply chain system that can quickly replenish shelves, putting them at an disadvantage.

"If consumers go to a minimart once or twice and the things they want to buy are not on the shelves or are lacking in variety, chances are, they will not be returning to these minimarts in the future," she said.

All nine of the neighbourhood grocery stores that ST spoke to said maintaining an adequate supply of sought-after items such as canned goods, instant noodles and flour on their shelves is the biggest challenge.

Ms Zhang Wei Ling, 40, manager of provision shop Zheng Rong Trading and Distribution at Block 504 Jurong West Street 51, said her cost prices for dried goods have been increasing as supplies dwindle but she is reluctant to increase her prices for fear of losing customers.

"We're very lucky to still be able to open during this period so even if we're earning a little lesser, it's OK. At least our goods are still moving and I can still pay for expenses," she said.

Mr Alex Ho, 34, owner of Downstairs Mart in New Upper Changi Road, said: "People who are not in the same trade see the demand for groceries and think that we're doing very well."

"But they don't see my struggle trying to replenish my shelves but suppliers either don't have enough or they prioritise their limited stocks for the big supermarkets."

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