SINGAPORE: Business has been brisk for grocery chains, minimarts and provision shops during the COVID-19 outbreak as they mop up some of the demand from people wanting to shop close to home, but they also face the need for additional manpower as sales increase.
Speaking to CNA, group managing director of grocery chain HAO mart Patrick Tan said sales started to pick up from the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and business has been about 30 per cent better for the chain.
"Minimarts tend to gain because they are directly in the heartlands," Mr Tan explained. "So customers rather go down and buy (from them rather) than go to the supermarket in the shopping centre where it can be very crowded.
"For the big boys, the queues are definitely going to be very long … Customers rather reduce the risk by going to the heartlands and buying whatever they need."
The HAO mart chain currently has 45 outlets, including an extensive network of minimarts. Last Sunday, it also launched a online "essential store" to meet demand.
Items such as rice, oil, and toilet paper were particularly popular when panic buying occurred, said Mr Tan. "Now they (customers) are moving on to the fresh items - fruits, vegetables, eggs ... all these are high demand items," he added.
Mr Rodney Goh, the owner of Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co, said that his provision shop had seen twice as many customers on days when major announcements were made by the Government.
This includes when the Ministry of Health (MOH) raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) risk assessment level from Yellow to Orange (Feb 7) as well as when Singapore's circuit breaker measures were announced (Apr 3).
"During the (announcement of) DORSCON orange, there was one rush. They rushed, then after that things cooled down ... and then it came during (the) Friday (where Singapore's circuit breaker measures were announced)," said Mr Goh, whose shop is located in Tiong Bahru.
"We are definitely seeing more new faces ... Because (when customers) go to the supermarket, they see the queue go around the block - they can’t be bothered to go there so they come here," he said.
While Mr Goh only opens his provision shop on Mondays once or twice a year as this is his rest day, he felt he had to open it on the Monday following the announcement of Singapore's circuit breaker measures.
"If I (had) opened on Tuesday, I would be overwhelmed," he said.
"Our advantage is that we are like a personalised service. The customer comes in, we see their face, we know what kind of toilet roll they want, what kind of noodles they buy, what kind of rice they eat and what kind of soap powder they want. And we get it for them."
At Mr Goh's provision shops, goods such as canned food, eggs and toilet paper are particularly popular, he added.
The UMart franchise, which has 51 minimarts across the island, has also seen an overall uptick in business, said director Alan Tay.
Since the announcement of Singapore's circuit breaker measures, it has seen an increase in customer volume of about 20 per cent to 40 per cent, added Mr Tay.
'IT's A BIT OF A CHALLENGE'
While business may be brisk, other challenges remain. For one, there is a need for additional manpower, said Mr Tan.
"We are more worried of panic buying where we have the goods but to replenish the store is a challenge. Suddenly there is a surge in demand and we have to utilise external parties to do the replenishing (of) the stock," he said.
"We have our central warehouse where we have anticipated this panic buying - that's why we stock up at our central warehouse. When the panic buying starts, we start to deplete our warehouse stock to replenish the outlets."
The chain has also increased its work force by almost ten per cent, added Mr Tan.
While grocery chains, minimarts and provision shops are allowed to remain open during the circuit breaker period, safe distancing protocols must be observed among customers and this is actively enforced by staff.
COVID-19 circuit breaker extended until Jun 1 as Singapore aims to bring down community cases ‘decisively’: PM Lee
HAO Mart for one, limits the number of customers based on the size of each store and also sanitises shopping baskets.
"We have engaged almost 60 part-timers just to manage during this period. Because of the circuit breaker, we need to deploy staff to control the crowd," explained Mr Tan. "It’s bit of a challenge."
“We face manpower issues because a lot of people are coming to buy (provisions)," added Mr Tay. "We had staff at the door to control the lines ... Sometimes there are elderly customers who don’t listen. Now, it is bit better because every day we are telling them what to do, and to stand behind (the markings)."
There has also been a lack of stock from suppliers on several occasions, said Mr Tay.
"There is an allocation for supermarkets and a portion for lower trade, smaller shops," he explained. "Sometimes when the allocation for supermarkets is low, suppliers take the allocation for smaller shops and give it to them."
But for now, the panic buying among Singaporeans seems to have subsided, noted both Mr Goh and Mr Tay.
They pointed out shops were not packed on Tuesday (Apr 21) after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the extension of Singapore's circuit breaker period to Jun 1.
READ: From bubble tea runs to getting a haircut: What you can or cannot do under tighter COVID-19 circuit breaker rules
"It was still okay, there wasn’t much increase," said Mr Tay. "Maybe it was only those shops that needed to close had longer queues."
Added Mr Goh: "Customers are used to the bad news already, so there was no panic buying."