The Big Read: Life after circuit breaker - retail, entertainment and leisure won’t be the same again

The Big Read: Life after circuit breaker - retail, entertainment and leisure won’t be the same again

As Singapore begins to lift restrictions, businesses in the retail, entertainment and leisure sectors are already preparing to attract customers back by tweaking or changing their modus operandi.

Clarke Quay circuit breaker
Lights switched off at closed businesses along Clarke Quay during the circuit breaker on May 27, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/Nuria Ling) 

SINGAPORE: After nearly two months, the circuit breaker that was imposed on Apr 7 to curb the COVID-19 outbreak is set to be eased on Tuesday (Jun 2).

But hold the champagne. Singapore residents who have been largely confined within their homes during this period will still have to wait before they can indulge in retail therapy, dine out or just watch a movie.

READ: COVID-19: Phase 2 of post-circuit breaker reopening could begin before end-June, says Lawrence Wong

READ: COVID-19: Singapore in discussion with other countries on lifting travel restrictions with safeguards in place

Instead, Jun 2 will mark the start of a three-phase gradual resumption of activities, with the initial phase allowing economic activities that “do not pose high risk of transmission” of the coronavirus to resume.

Shenton way empty
An almost deserted Shenton Way n the Central Business District during Singapore's circuit breaker. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

These refer to those in manufacturing and production facilities, businesses with employees working in offices or selected services such as motor vehicle servicing, air-conditioner servicing and basic pet services.

Phase 2 will see the resumption of more activities such as social pursuits in small groups.

It will also see dining-in options at food-and-beverage establishments being allowed, as well as the reopening of retail outlets, gyms and fitness studios, and personal health and wellness services including spas and massage centres.

The chance to catch the next blockbuster, however, will have to wait. For higher-risk activities such as going to cinemas and bars, the Government will be engaging businesses and organisations on how and when they may resume safely, with the necessary safe management measures and safeguards.

It is possible that Phase Two may be no more than a few weeks away, the authorities have said. However, it may take several months thereafter for Singapore to reach Phase Three, or the "new normal" for Singapore until an effective vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 is developed. 

F&B outlets circuit breaker
Phase Two will see the resumption of more activities such as social pursuits in small groups. (Photo: TODAY/ Raj Nadarajan)

On Thursday, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that if infection rates remain low and stable, the further easing of circuit breaker measures under the second phase could take place before Jun 30

While there is still some uncertainty as to when Singapore will progress to the later phases, businesses in the retail, entertainment and leisure sectors — such as chain stores, cinemas, gyms, massage and nail parlours — are already preparing to attract customers back by tweaking or changing their modus operandi.

RETAILERS: RISE OF THE OMNICHANNEL MODEL 

Just as the pandemic has compelled white-collar companies to overcome their inertia and fully embrace the idea of telecommuting, the virus has similarly been the push that some retailers needed to go digital.

Mr Desmond Sim, head of Southeast Asia research at real estate firm CBRE, said despite the Government’s exhortations for businesses to go digital over the years, the rate of adoption had been rather slow.

READ: COVID-19 Budget measures 'welcome', but may not be enough to save F&B sector: Business owners

Orchard Ion during circuit breaker
An empty food hall at Orchard ION during the circuit breaker period. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos) 

"COVID-19 has basically been the catalyst to kick (business owners) off the fence if they have still been sitting on it,” he said. “It’s changed the way people consume things, it’s changed the way people occupy space and it’s changed the way we communicate.”

Some merchants, such as Japanese casual wear retailer Uniqlo, said the transition has been a smooth one for them, considering that they already have an established digital presence.

Others are starting to beef up their online presence, such as the Popular bookstore chain, which recently took its offerings of books, stationery and gadgets online to LazMall, a curated selection of international and local brands by e-commerce platform Lazada.

A Popular spokesperson said that since the homegrown brand went on LazMall on May 14, it has been able to extend its retail presence and continue to “serve the community in providing essential needs in this trying time”.

Over at Robinsons department store, a spokesperson for the 162-year-old company said it will be ramping up its online shopping in light of COVID-19.

Still, the company has “always believed in the power of the personal touch”. “The brick-and-mortar store allows us to express premium service in a way that the digital store cannot,” said the spokesperson.

READ: Tenants need ‘unprecedented’ rent relief amid COVID-19 outbreak, say retail and F&B groups

COVID-19 MRT face masks circuit breaker
Commuters wear face masks on an MRT train in Singapore on Mar 18, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman) 

This was a sentiment shared by Mrs Helen Khoo, executive director of Wing Tai Retail.

“While many people are shopping online, shopping in stores provides better experience and touchpoints on practical needs,” said Mrs Khoo, whose firm counts brands such as Fox Kids & Baby, Dorothy Perkins and Topshop in its portfolio.

To gear up for Phase 2, she said the firm has taken appropriate steps to ensure a safe retail environment, which includes implementing appropriate safe-distancing measures and training store employees on health and safety protocols.

Mrs Khoo said that while physical stores have their benefits, she believes online and offline shopping can coexist and complement each other.

READ: Commentary: Why we can’t resist splurging on online shopping

READ: Commentary: Has COVID-19 made e-commerce and online shopping the new normal?

“An omnichannel model is the way to go to offer customers added value that makes their shopping experiences richer and more connected,” she said.

Wing Tai Retail will be allowing customers to reserve products online and book an appointment for collection when stores reopen to speed up the transaction. 

“We are also looking at doing live streaming of new arrivals on our social media platforms to reach out to our customers,” said Mrs Khoo.

Social Distancing 17
Public benches at Orchard Gateway mall marked for safe distancing on Mar 26, 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Others, such as cosmetic chain Sephora, plan to push tools to allow customers to try their products virtually, even if they are physically present in the store.

A Sephora spokesperson said that as a precaution, it will not be allowing the testing of cosmetics or offering makeover services.

For patrons who are still not keen to enter the store but want to consult the chain’s beauty advisers, the spokesperson said it has launched a Virtual Consultation Service where customers can call in regarding any of their make-up, skincare, haircare or fragrance queries.

Sephora circuit breaker
A Sephora spokesperson said that as a precaution, it will not be allowing the testing of cosmetics or offering makeover services. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

Experts said that while Singaporeans want to return to the malls post-circuit breaker, it may not necessarily translate to foot traffic for retailers if they are not offering anything unique.

Mr Lucas Tok, a lecturer in retail at the Singapore Polytechnic, said the circuit breaker has altered the consumption habits of Singaporeans.

“If you have formed a habit of getting a certain product online (during the circuit breaker), you might just walk past a store selling it,” said Mr Tok. “The real test for them (businesses) is, how are you going to make consumers walk into your store?” 

One possibility, said the experts, is to sell an experience.

According to Adobe’s Digital Trends 2020 Report, 40 per cent of businesses that were leading in customer experience exceeded their 2019 business goals compared with only 13 per cent who did not lead in that metric.

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READ: Commentary: Life after COVID-19 — fashion's excesses curbed, shopping habits forever changed

Citing Jo Malone as an example, CBRE’s Mr Sim said the perfume and scented candle brand allows customers to create a bespoke perfume fragrance.

“You can’t do that online because you need to smell it,” he said. “But once your mix is ready, you can purchase (your subsequent bottles) online.”

He suggested that physical shop fronts can be a way businesses can “hook” new customers by offering them something experiential, while the online stores allow for recurring income due to the convenience they afford.

Other changes afoot could see retailers scaling down their offline stores. Alternatively, retail space could be transformed for more “experiential and lifestyle offerings” such as digital kiosks to check on stock or for a chance to win vouchers, or even a snack bar with self-service coffee or tea offerings, said Mrs Khoo.

F&B, NIGHTLIFE: NEW EXPERIENCES 

Like their retail counterparts, food and beverage (F&B) operators said that it will be a challenge to lure customers back, and even if they return, safe-distancing measures could effectively halve the outlets’ seating capacity.

For Mrs Christina Keilthy, who co-owns the Godmama Peranakan restaurant with its chef Fred Goh, that could mean pivoting towards more takeaways and deliveries.

READ: 'It’s about trying until our last breath': New F&B players cook up survival plans for COVID-19 crisis 

Christina Keilthy
Mrs Christina Keilthy, co-founder of Peranakan restaurant Godmama, has designed items on the menu with delivery in mind. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

This is because when the Funan-based restaurant reopens, it is likely that its small dining-area — whose capacity would be reduced further by safe-distancing measures — will just not be able to seat enough diners to turn a sufficient profit.

Deliveries will similarly continue to play a key role for Mr Marcus Foo, the chief executive officer of PPP Coffee, as he believes footfall will not return to the same level as before. 

“If you cut out the deliveries, our sales have dropped by almost 70 per cent,” he said.

Mr Foo’s company manages the popular Chye Seng Huat Hardware cafe along Tyrwhitt Road, and has a business arm selling wholesale coffee beans and related brewing equipment.

“If we are just going to be looking at a purely dining-in model, the low footfall is going to be very challenging,” he said. “So we definitely need to encourage more takeaways and deliveries from customers.”

READ: Events postponed, restaurants ‘near empty’: F&B industry on the chopping block as COVID-19 measures bite

Chye Seng Huat Hardware cafe
Mr Marcus Foo’s company manages the popular Chye Seng Huat Hardware cafe along Tyrwhitt Road, and has a business arm selling wholesale coffee beans and related brewing equipment. (Photo: TODAY/Nuria Ling) 

However, he has a plan which he hopes will draw customers back — by offering the ultimate coffee experience.

Mr Foo said that aside from the regular cafe menu, there will be a retail space where customers can replenish their pantries with all things caffeine-related such as coffee beans, drip bags and even chocolate to go with their coffee. 

Having a retail space is something in the works for restaurant chain Tung Lok Group as well, said its chief executive officer Andrew Tjioe, who did not share the details.

While providing deliveries and takeaways may help to make up for the drop in dining-in capacity, it will not be enough, he reiterated.

Offering a retail space, for example, would not only “enhance customer experience” but also give the restaurant an opportunity to sell something, he added.

Listen: How many stars will you give Singapore's F&B industry this COVID-19 season?

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One thing is for sure, the business owners said they have no intention of raising their prices to recoup their losses or make up for the reduced seating capacity.

“Everyone's pay cheque has been impacted in one way or another,” said Mrs Keilthy. “The last thing you want to do is to raise your prices.”

Clarke Quay
A jogger runs through an empty Clarke Quay in Singapore where most bars and restaurants are closed amid circuit breaker measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. (Marcus Mark Ramos) 

While restaurants and cafes can rely on delivery services to make up for the lack of walk-in customers, the same cannot be said of those in the nightlife scene.

People patronise bars, pubs and clubs for the atmosphere, said Mr Dennis Foo, adviser to the Singapore Nightlife Business Association.

Part of this atmosphere relies on the presence of crowds, added Mr Dennis Foo, who is also director of special projects for the Singapore River One — an organisation that manages the Singapore River precinct.

“The more people there are, the better. That was the selling point,” he said, “But today, that has changed and the atmosphere just won’t be there because customers will only feel comfortable if there are less people around (in a confined space).”

READ: Commentary: We are becoming a 'dabao nation' – why does it feel like a bad thing?

READ: Commentary: I miss my regular bar – but I accept I might never get to return, even after circuit breakers are lifted

To get around this, Mr Dennis Foo suggested that the authorities look into allowing the use of al fresco spaces within certain precincts.

This would mean that patrons would no longer have to be confined within an establishment. Instead, they could be outdoors while maintaining a safe distance from one another.

Shops along Arab street during circuit breaker
Workers of eateries along Arab street attempt to attract passing drivers to order take-away from their shop. Dining in restaurants is not allowed during the circuit breaker period to stem spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

“With fresh air and better circulation, it will mitigate the risks of getting infected and provide comfort to customers,” said Mr Dennis Foo, who has built and led some of Singapore’s most popular night spots such as the now-defunct St James Power Station.

For the suggestion to work, he said, the open area will have to be organised at a precinct or along a street where movement is controlled through gated entrances and exits. This could provide a real-time count of the number of people in the designated area, screen out anyone with a fever through thermal scanners and even make it easier for contact tracing, he said.

But Mr Dennis Foo added: “All these without some form of attraction will be fruitless as optimum patronage cannot be achieved without it.

“I suggest some form of light entertainment located centrally in the precinct or street so that it can be enjoyed by most if not all customers. A two to three-piece acoustic ensemble playing chill music will be ideal.”

CINEMAS, THEATRES: SEAT GAPS, VIDEO-ON-DEMAND, ONLINE PERFORMANCES

Going to the movies, when this is allowed to resume, may not need to be a lonely affair.

At Singapore’s largest cinema chain Golden Village (GV), which operates 14 cinemas, seats will remain reconfigured in checkerboard style in pairs, similar to what was observed shortly before the circuit breaker kicked in. 

The Projector cinema
The Projector has already launched its home delivery F&B service where customers are able to order their popcorn, chilli dogs and custom craft beers to recreate the Projector experience right at home. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

However, these seating arrangements, which were in line with the Government’s social-distancing guidelines at the time, are subject to change and can only be confirmed at a later date, a GV spokesperson said.

‘If social gatherings are still not allowed by the time we reopen ... only patrons from the same household will be allowed to sit together in pairs,” the spokesperson said. This would mean dating couples who are not living together would have to be kept apart in the cinema.

At Shaw Theatres, a similar arrangement of a two-seat gap was implemented prior to the circuit breaker taking effect. A spokesperson said the cinema operator is waiting on directions from the authorities.

Arab Street empty 02
The popular tourist alley in Arab Street remain empty on Tuesday (May 5), amidst the circuit breaker period (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Over at The Projector, an independent cinema in Beach Road, the capacity in its cinema halls was slashed by 50 per cent pre-circuit breaker to abide by safe-distancing measures, but people still had the option of choosing where they wanted to sit.

“We'll have a similar approach, depending on the prevailing social-distancing norms when we reopen. As possibly the only free-seating cinema in Singapore, we'll have to scrutinise the spirit of the social-distancing measures for groups and adapt accordingly,” said general manager Mr Prashant Somosundram.

“We will best advise them (patrons) what is considered safe, but it will be absurd to ask a couple who sleep on the same bed to sit two seats apart to watch a movie.”

READ: Commentary: The rise and rise of Netflix in a time of coronavirus

The GV spokesperson said that with the seat gaps, there will be a reduction in capacity by at least 50 per cent.

But this does not mean it will reduce its manpower. In fact, GV expects to increase manpower by 30 per cent to facilitate temperature screenings, verify patrons’ check-in, step up cleaning and disinfecting of cinema premises and ensure all other safe-distancing measures are adhered to.

Orchard Road Singapore face mask groceries shopping
A man wearing a face mask carries a bag of groceries as he walks past a closed retail mall along the Orchard Road shopping belt in Singapore on May 6, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

Similarly, Mr Prashant said that he will be looking to hire four part-time staff to assist his 14 full-timers with these tasks.

Despite the prospect of lower revenues and higher costs, both GV and The Projector do not have any plans to increase their ticket prices.

Instead, GV will be selling merchandise. It is also exploring expanding its F&B business by working with food delivery platforms.

The Projector has already launched its home delivery F&B service where customers are able to order their popcorn, chilli dogs and custom craft beers to recreate the Projector experience right at home.

“We are also forging ahead with the development of a video-on-demand platform to offer pay-per-view movies for our community to stream at home,” said Mr Prashant. The movies, which are priced at US$9.99 (S$14) each, can be rented for 24 hours.

LISTEN: How Singapore businesses and workers can thrive in a post-pandemic new normal

As for theatre groups and practitioners, the artistic directors of local theatre company Pangdemonium, Tracie and Adrian Pang, said that the situation seems “bleak”.          

“But we have to hold on to hope. At the end of the day, theatre will always be a group of people gathering in a communal space to share stories, no matter the number of people or the size of the space. At the same time, any live performance feeds off the energy of the audience,” they said in an email response. 

While they are looking into the possibility of two to three new projects that may be viable to do under social-distancing rules, these are still in the early stages of discussion and viability research, the husband and wife team said.

In the meantime, they have streamed four of their past works — Falling, Late Company, Dragonflies, and Chinglish — for free, with the reception being “far greater” than they had expected, reaching over 91 countries.

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Forced to postpone or cancel some shows, Dream Academy, another local theatre company, decided to launch its 50 Days of Laughter series on YouTube on Mar 30.

Clips from Dream Academy’s past shows by Dim Sum Dollies, comedian Kumar and Broadway Beng, are being released every weekday over 10 weeks, ending on Jun 5. New content, which the team is working on, will be subsequently rolled out.

A Dream Academy spokesperson said: “We put out this content when we observed that more than 90 per cent of those who bought tickets for Kumar (which had to be postponed) did not request a refund and they’re still holding on to their tickets to see him in October.

“They're hopeful about returning to the theatre. We wanted to thank them for their support by giving them a platform to watch our past shows while we look forward to returning to the theatre together."

HEALTH & WELLNESS: GYMS, MASSAGE & NAIL PARLOURS ADAPT TO NEW NORM 

With gyms set to open in Phase 2, those eager to get back into their usual fitness routines can expect some changes — such as plastic dividers between treadmills.

That is one safe-distancing measure that Gymboxx is considering, the gym’s spokesperson said. Other measures include marking rest benches to accommodate only one person per bench and restricting the number of users who are able to use the shower room at any one time.

At Fitness First, members will also be encouraged to bring their own boxing gloves and mat toppers when they attend group fitness classes, which gyms will have to downsize to abide by the one person per 16 sqm of usable space rule previously enforced before the circuit breaker took effect.

“We are currently also looking to introduce off-peak slots for group fitness classes. Putting in more class timings throughout the day will help offset the limited entry for the time being and give members more options at clubs,” said Mr Anil Chugani, country manager of Fitness First Singapore.

To spread out the crowd, Gymboxx is also exploring changing its membership structure to provide a plan to customers who would like to use the gym during off-peak hours.

TFX gym circuit breaker
Signs placed over gym equipment at TFX gym at Funan on Apr 27, 2020. (Photo: TODAY/ Raj Nadarajan)

The gym, which offers memberships as well as per-entry customers, will stop accepting the latter to prioritise their members’ use of the gym. The duration of members’ use of the gym will also be capped at two hours.

“We will share a (URL) link with our members where they can track and view the number of members at the respective outlets at any given time to help them in planning when to head down to the gym,” the spokesperson said.

Mr Ken Mok, the chief executive officer of True Group, which owns True Fitness and TFX gyms, said that it will have a similar web-based club capacity tracker. Users will also be able to make gym entry bookings via their mobile application. 

“We will also structurally divide our studios into smaller studios so that more classes can be made available. In addition, we are launching more 30-minute classes instead of 60-minute classes so that we could put out more classes,” he added.

UFit customers will be offered the option of taking their workouts outdoors to avoid overcrowding the gym floor.

“Outdoors has always been popular with group training but we will now have outdoor options for personal training clients who don’t want to come into the gym just yet,” said Ms Wendy Riddell, director of Bootcamps at UFit.

READ: Commentary: You can enjoy jogging even by yourself

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To meet the demand of customers who do not feel safe returning to gyms and for those who are unable to get a slot to enter when they are crowded, gyms such as Fitness First and Virgin Active will continue to roll out free online content, which started during the circuit breaker.

On top of the free content, some gyms are monetising online classes to make up for the losses incurred during the period that they had to close.

Gymboxx is working with ClassPass, a membership-based mobile application that allows users to use their credits to book classes at gyms and fitness studios, to roll out virtual group classes.

Virgin Active also launched paid programmes on May 11 for digital coaching and virtual personal training.

Mr Julien Bera, Virgin Active Singapore’s country director, said: “Digital coaching provides support and accountability, ensuring that members feel always encouraged and motivated to stay on track. For virtual personal training, members will receive a personalised training programme catered to whatever equipment they have access to.

While the gyms — occupying relatively large premises — have some flexibility to adapt their business, the nail salons will literally have a smaller wriggle room.

Bugis Street market
Bugis Street market (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

Ms Joanna Lee, the owner of Princess's Cottage: The Nails Story, said that each of her three outlets will have a limit of 10 people at any one time. With an average of six staff in each outlet, that leaves space for only four customers, she said.

“We will require the customer’s understanding that fewer appointments will be available. This will also cause a drop in revenue and inevitably affect the performance of business,” she said.

Ms Lee added that it will be a challenge to continue paying rent while dealing with increased costs of disposable masks, aprons and gloves that will be made compulsory for all staff.

Ms Zoe Lim, the owner of Nails & Good Company, which opened in 2018, is similarly worried about the lower occupancy rate which she said will have an impact on profitability.

“We will not be able to take in group bookings as much as we used to due to limited spaces. In addition, more time will also have to be added in between services to allow for in-depth cleaning,” she said.

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Meanwhile, a massage parlour chain is hoping that customers would be understanding of the additional hassle and possible price hikes. 

Mr Joseph Loy, director of massage parlour Han Dynasty, said that while the services offered will be the same, the process might not be as seamless, which could impact customers’ view of the overall experience, thereby affecting the brand.

“Before COVID-19, customers would come in, write down their names and details, pay up and they are ready to be brought to their massage rooms. Now we have to take their temperature, travel history and key in their details for them. And avoid contact when paying by using PayNow or PayLah!,” he said.

The increased costs of buying hygiene products for his three outlets will inevitably have to be shared with the customers if the measures are prolonged, Mr Loy added.

“But we believe if we do all things right, customers will understand. Customers will pay for service and peace of mind,” he said.

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