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    Oct 03, 2014

    Heartland shops go digital for growth

    POOR business coupled with high manpower and rental costs forced Suzie Tan and her husband to close the shutters of their Hougang Housing Board shop for good in 2011.

    But the couple's 60-year-old family business, now called GMM Technoworld, has since found a new lease of life after they ventured online.

    In fact, their business, which sells waterproof camera cases and electronic gadgets, is thriving online. Sales are up 80 per cent, compared with the sale figures when they had a shopfront, said Madam Tan, 48.

    "Youngsters prefer to go online. It's easy to see our items and click and buy," she said.

    Amid rising costs and a labour crunch, neighbourhood shop owners like Madam Tan are turning to cyberspace in hopes of reviving or expanding their businesses.

    And they should do so or risk getting left behind, said Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore.

    "With e-commerce and social media, you can reach out to more customers," said Mr Yeo.

    "Unless they are already very popular, old businesses will eventually lose out to the competition if they don't keep up."

    About 30 businesses, including GMM Technoworld and some other heartland shops, have taken his advice and joined new start-up e-commerce site Shang Market to sell their products.

    The portal, which started in July, gives merchants the necessary software and training, and provides delivery services on their behalf.

    Its chief executive, Philip Wong, expects more than 100 businesses to get on the bandwagon by next year.

    But not enough HDB shops are doing it, he said, simply because embracing an online business model would require a shift in attitudes.

    According to official estimates, there are some 16,000 heartland shops, including those in HDB-run malls. Most of them continue to exist only as brick-and-mortar outlets.

    But James Lim, 59, is willing to take the plunge.

    The director of SKP, which sells party ware, food packaging and stationery, is taking his family store online for the first time since it opened in 1991.

    "Times have changed and we need to keep up," said the father of two, who does not consider himself tech savvy.

    SKP, which has a website, will soon be hawking its products for the first time in cyberspace - on Shang Market.

    Mr Lim even plans on using Instagram and Facebook in the next step of his virtual revamp.

    "It's a trend," he said. "You cannot run away from it."

    But other shop owners, like health and beauty centre boss Karney Ngai, intend to stay offline.

    "Our services, like foot reflexology massages and manicures, cannot be sold online," said the 66-year-old, who is also chairman of the Yuhua Constituency Street 31 Shop Proprietors and Hawkers Association.

    "We also rely mainly on regular customers who will call us directly, rather than new ones who might find us on Facebook."