Rejuvenating heartland shops: Ideas span new and old amid concerns about digitalisation

Minister for National Development Desmond Lee discussing with participants in a public engagement session on rejuvenating heartland shops. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

SINGAPORE - Participants in a public engagement session on rejuvenating Housing Board (HDB) heartland shops on Monday (Feb 21) grappled with digitalisation as the way forward, raising concern that older shop owners may fall behind.

"E-payments are good but, in reality, it's a bit too complicated and uncomfortable for many shop owners. Cash, on the other hand, is something tangible and comfortable," a participant said.

Another participant added: "We also have a concern that if shops digitalise, would they replace our jobs with (things like) self-ordering machines?"

They were among 24 participants who discussed how the authorities can shape the heartland retail scene, and how shops can foster community ties while remaining "vibrant, relevant and endearing".

The session comes amid efforts by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to seek suggestions on how to refresh heartland shops while preserving their heritage and cultural value.

There are around 15,000 shops spread out across town centres, neighbourhood areas and precinct shop clusters.

National Development Minister Desmond Lee said that preserving tradition while implementing innovative solutions is important for heartland shops.

Citing traditional Chinese medicine clinics and joss paper shops, Mr Lee said: "If you look at the trend, these shops are at risk of fading away... because the younger generation no longer subscribe or have an affinity to these things.

"But even the young people feel the loss when these traditional trades vanish."

Solutions such as group buys and digitalisation of logistics management "promise to bring the digitalisation journey of our heartland enterprises to the next level", he said.

Noting that HDB shops can serve as a catalyst for young entrepreneurs to try new things, Mr Lee said a participant had suggested having a 3D printing shop. Others thought of using videos and social media influencers to promote heartland shops.

The participants said shops should be searchable on platforms such as Google Maps, and also suggested placing physical directories of heartland shops in the estates.

Other suggestions include renovating shops and bringing back pasar malams to improve footfall and make estates more lively.

Mr Lee noted that some participants had suggested the HDB could take a proactive role to curate a diverse mix of shops. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

Mr Lee noted that some participants had suggested the HDB could take a proactive role to curate a diverse mix of shops.

But in terms of business, if there is a concentration of certain types of shops, it could also be beneficial as competition leads to product innovation and better-valued packages, he added.

"Actually, we do not want one or the other; we want to have a mix," he said. "Some of you had interesting ideas about how HDB can better design our estates so you can have certain anchor areas."

For instance, HDB malls can have enough shops for concentration and competition, as well as diversity and choice. Neighbourhood shops can then be curated by HDB, said Mr Lee.

About 400 people have participated in MND's online survey on how to rejuvenate heartland shops since its launch on Feb 3.

Since late last year, the ministry has conducted interviews, focus group discussions and surveys with some 2,000 stakeholders, including shop owners, tenants, workers and residents.

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