Merchants association calls for heartland shops to be allowed to open earlier, dining at hawker centres

SINGAPORE – Some 20 to 30 per cent of “mom and pop” shops may go belly up in four to six weeks if they have to continue to stay shuttered.

President of the Federation of Merchants’ Associations, Singapore (FMAS) Yeo Hiang Meng has called for the Government to allow these heartland enterprises to resume business in two weeks, among other recommendations.

While the circuit breaker measures will lift on June 2, retailers have to remain shut, while food and beverage (F&B) establishments cannot offer dine-in options during the first “safe reopening” phase of the economy, which is expected to last at least four weeks.

They will only be allowed to resume such operations in the second phase.

FMAS said that “retail shops and all F&B outlets have incurred huge losses for the last two months and would like to be back in operation soonest to stay afloat”.

It expressed concerns that any prolonged extension of the circuit breaker “will snowball into more undesirable damaging effects”.

FMAS also proposed that the Government allows F&B joints to offer dine-in capacity at 30 to 50 per cent, as hawker centres and coffee shops depend on such crowds for business revenue.

Less than half of heartland shops have gone online. PHOTO: ST FILE

The association represents over 20,000 heartland businesses.

Mr Yeo noted that less than half of heartland shops have gone online, and that those that offer services such as beauty and wellness clinics and tuition centres will find it harder to operate without a physical store.

“There are also those that sell pricey or valuable items that consumers want to physically see and touch,” he said. “Many have gone onto e-marketplaces but there is still much room for improvement.

“If community infection numbers remain at single digits, perhaps (heartland businesses ) can be allowed to open with safety measures in place such as the wearing of masks and the use of safe tracing and entry phone apps.”

In a survey done by the association this month, 98 per cent of respondents said they expect business volume to dip compared with last year.

“Four to six weeks is too long and many of them cannot sustain themselves even with Government relief measures,” Mr Yeo said. “If their business is not open, they don’t have income.”

Mr Anthony Low, chairman of the FMAS hawker division, said some of the food hawkers such as zi char stalls find it difficult to offer takeaway options, so they have chosen to just close.

“They have endured for two months but now they hear it will be some time more. It will be very challenging especially for those with no income now.”

FMAS also proposed other initiatives such as $500 spending vouchers to be distributed to all Singaporean households to encourage them to be consumers in neighbourhoods, town centres and hawker centres.

It also asks banks to speed up the loan approval process for shops, while calling on town councils to waive the temporary occupation license fees for outdoor display areas and overhead signage for April to June.

The association also hopes for an extension of property tax rebates, the Job Support Scheme and foreign worker levy waiver, since shops have to remain shut for a prolonged time.

FMAS said: “Some companies and enterprises will still be winding up after the crisis. This is a natural cycle. We hope that with the concerted efforts from the Government, fitter companies in the private sector can weather through the turbulent situation and emerge to become more influential companies in the future.”

Mr Mark Lim, owner of heartland mall retail chain Ilahui which sells fashion and lifestyle accessories, said sales have fallen by 60 per cent since the start of the circuit breaker period. He started selling items online 1½ months ago.

“We have put items on Qoo10 and Shopee but it takes time for customers to know your brand and trust you. Online marketplaces are very crowded with big players that can afford to give very low prices,” he said.

“It is really a struggle to attract customers because they have been going to other retailers who have been online longer. I really do hope that once the cases start to have a significant drop, (we) can open up again.”

Ms Elizabeth Lai, owner of fishing accessories shop E-Waves Fishbyte in Clementi, said overall sales have also plunged by 50 per cent despite her store’s online presence.

“We are surviving on online sales and covering our overheads, but this cannot totally make up for our drop in physical takings. There are some items that customers have to come to see, such as the fishing lines that they have to spool into their reels,” she said.

“It is tough for us, but I’m lucky to have the online shop because without it, what would I do?”

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