Heartland shops are fighting back

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Faced with greater pressure from malls and franchises, merchants are joining forces.

Think of that pandan waffle aroma wafting not from the baker downstairs who slices his own loaves, but from a branch of the mass bakery chain that has replaced him. Instead of buying your brooms and light bulbs from the crammed but homely hardware store, you will be picking your wares up from a supermarket.

And the fish soup you’ve been buying from the hawker aunty who has watched you grow up, is replaced by an impersonal foodcourt clone.

In as little as 10 years, the competition from suburban malls sprouting near most MRT stations could make this scenario a reality, warn those who run mom-and-pop trades in the heartlands. Town centres with their mix of distinctive shops and eateries will go “sooner or later”, they fear, replaced by cookie-cutter hubs with ubiquitous commercial franchises.

Indeed, small-time neighbourhood businesses have seen revenues drop by between 30 and 40 per cent over the past five years.

But they will not go quietly.

From engaging event organisers to joining forces for inter-town promotions and tweaking how they operate, more and more heartland shops have been striving to win back customers.

TOUGH LAST FIVE YEARS

Though competition from suburban malls has been around for more than 10 years, the heat was turned up about five years ago, said Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, President of the Federation of Merchants’ Association.

MRT stations and bus interchanges themselves began hosting shops and eateries. All this meant retail space “increased tremendously”, he said.

“People started having many more choices and it changed spending patterns,” said Mr Yeo, who is also President of the Toa Payoh Town Centre Merchants’ Association. “It became pretty tough for traditional heartland shops, honestly.”

The situation has been exacerbated by other woes.

Unlike shopping centres, where the management controls the retail mix, the variety of shops and services in town centres are up to the individual landlords. As a result, some neighbourhoods can have a high concentration of bubble tea shops or LAN gaming shops.

Merchants also bemoan how small-time trades may be lost as there is a dearth of young blood willing to take over, making a commercial franchise takeover more likely.

JOINING FORCES

In 2009, some merchants’ associations figured they had to band together instead of taking on the fight alone.

Going beyond holding their own periodic promotions, they decided to entice shoppers and diners across several HDB towns by holding joint lucky draws and “10-cent deal” promotions, among other things.

It began with five merchants’ associations participating in the “Heartland Fiesta” that year. Last year, the number grew to eight and this year’s event in July will see seven take part, according to Crystal Horizon. It is the only event management firm here that focuses solely on events to promote heartland businesses – managing director Tan Puay Hoon says what began as just a consultancy grew into a full-fledged business because of the keen interest from merchants.

Said Mr Yeo: “By joining together, we can do more mass marketing through the media. It’s cheaper and the voice is louder.”

Hawkers and shopowners in neighbourhood centres that have participated in the yearly month-long affair said while it has not brought back the crowds of yore, it provides some respite, to the tune of a 15- to 20-per-cent spike in business.

Offbeat ideas have been born too: Hong Kah Shop Proprietors’ Association invited several bloggers to shop and dine there last year to showcase their shops.

PRICE WAR?

Banking on price competitiveness is another strategy, albeit not one that everyone buys.

Mr Steven Koh, chairman of Chong Pang Merchants’ Association, believes heartland shops must offer better deals so that people will forego the convenience of shopping at the malls.

“If not, why would customers not want to just go into the shopping centre and avoid the rain?” he asked.

Mr Yeo, however, feels that a “price war” would only lead to a “die-die situation” as small businesses do not have the crowd to generate enough revenue to settle for even lower profit margins.

More heartland shop-owners are increasingly sold on the idea of “improving the shopping experience” for their customers. That means physical upgrades to create cleaner and more organised environments.

Said President of Serangoon North Merchants’ Association Patrick Ong: “Last time, the awnings were all of different colours, for example. Now, it’s clean and nice and more pleasant, so it’s definitely helped because there is not such a big difference from the environment in shopping centres.”

UNIQUELY HEARTLAND

Other not-so-secret weapons in the neighbourhood merchants’ arsenal: Feng shui talks, mini-concerts and auctions during festivities, all crowd-pleasers which the merchants’ associations say sets them apart from the shopping malls.

Agreeing, housewife Lim Swee Man, 52, said: “It’s like a carnival. There’s a nice atmosphere that you cannot get in shopping centres. That’s why I continue to visit heartland shops.”

The personal touch is another advantage that mom-and-pop retailers can exploit. Mr Yeo said: “The relationship between heartland shops and customers is closer, like friends; so we have to train our people to build the relationship.”

Carving out their own niche is something else neighbourhood shops have tried to do.

Mr Koh hopes to bring back the atmosphere that earned Chong Pang the moniker of “Little Chinatown” in the past.

“We’re quite well-known for our food here, so we have to make sure we maintain standards so people will continue to come specially for our food.”

A SHAME, SAY YOUNG FOLKS

Do younger folks care whether heartland shops will disappear from our estates in the future?

Ms Eunice Pan, 28, a sales executive, said it would be “a real loss” if the HDB landscape did not have “unique shops that hold memories and add to the flavour of an estate”.

“My fear is that it’s already too late,” she said. “Most town centres already look almost the same and I don’t know what I’m missing out on anymore.”

Mr Tan Wee Meng, 26, a job-seeker, said it is the “soul” of a place that will ultimately make people feel like visiting. “It doesn’t matter if the place is not as clean or a bit messier.

“If there’s a buzz – they pride themselves on food, or place emphasis on the history of the area, for example – I’m sure nobody would want the place to disappear,” he said.

The merchants are struggling to make sure that does not happen.

“We want to do more marketing and promotions but donations from our members can be difficult to come by,” said Mr Ong.

As Mr Yeo put it, “something has to be done, no matter what”.

“Our survival is not in our hands, but at least we do something to give us a fair chance; at least we are not sitting ducks.”

Heartland Fiesta 2012

July 1-29

More than 400 shops in seven neighbourhood centres participating

Source : Today – 2012 Jun 23

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