SINGAPORE: Mr RM Suresh used to do a roaring trade selling mobile phone accessories and sundries to migrant workers who gathered in Little India every weekend.
The owner of Pamban Trading, a shop at Belilios Lane, is now thinking of switching to goods that appeal to local customers as business has fallen by about 90 per cent in the last four months, ever since thousands of workers were quarantined due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
While he received a rental waiver for a few months, the concession will end this month.
"How to continue the business, I don't know ... I pray to god," he said with a wry laugh.
Migrant workers living in dormitories make up the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in Singapore, and while the country's "circuit breaker" period ended in June, allowing retail shops to reopen, most of these workers have to stay in their dormitories except for work.
Most workers now travel only between their dormitories and work places, and the crowds at Little India have not returned. Even the few workers who do patronise Mr Suresh's shop now buy less than they used to, he said.
When CNA visited on Saturday (Aug 29), the crowds that used to pack the heritage area on weekends were conspicuously missing.
Mr Mohamed Iqbal, whose shop on Dunlop Street is stacked high with shirts, shoes and other goods that appeal to the workers, said that his business has fallen by 50 to 60 per cent. It has never been this bad in the 20 years his shop has been in the area, he said.
"They used to come and buy everything ... now they work and they go back to their dormitories," he said, adding that a lack of tourists in the area has also affected his business somewhat.
Shops selling mobile phone cards and accessories also told CNA that their business has fallen by quite a lot without the workers, especially on weekends.
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SHOPS HIT BY LACK OF TOURISTS
At the Little India Arcade, traffic was thinner than usual on a Saturday and there were only a few customers at Ms Selvi's beauty parlour.
More than 90 per cent of the customers who came to them for henna painting were tourists, she said, adding that demand for beauty services from local customers has fallen even after the circuit breaker period.
"(People) are not coming out so much and they might be thinking: 'Aiyah, no need to groom myself lah, might as well stay at home'," she said.
Selvi's shop was among the places visited by members of the Singapore Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI), who were on a walkabout on Saturday to find out more about Indian business owners' concerns and challenges amid the COVID-19 crisis.
"Especially in Little India, most of them are dependent on migrant workers as well as the tourist market footfall ... that has come to a standstill at this point of time and it's a very challenging period for them," said Mr Parthiban Murugaiyan, who is part of an SICCI task force set up to help businesses affected by COVID-19.
The task force set up in May has helped about 1,800 businesses so far, but it wants to reach out to more businesses which may not be aware of the schemes and support measures they can tap, said Mr Chandra Mohan Rethnam, SICCI vice-chairman and the head of the task force.
Businesses have reached out to them to better understand the financial help schemes available, for advice on how to transform their businesses and to set up e-commerce or e-payment systems. There was also a small proportion who asked for help to regionalise or internationalise, he said during a press conference on Saturday.
Footfall in Little India has dropped by about 50 per cent in total, and while local customers have returned, he estimates that number to be about 70 per cent of what it was before, said Mr Rajakumar Chandra, chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association (LISHA).
"On a weekend, at least 95 per cent of the businesses here depend on (migrant workers) and can you imagine, for the last five months, there's not a single soul here," he said. "I think things are going to be very different for many businesses, especially businesses that depend on tourism and on foreign workers. I think they are finding ways to turn around their businesses."
But it's not all doom and gloom for the shops in Little India. CNA observed that grocery stores, minimarts and some shops catering to local residents were relatively busy at about noon on Saturday. A few shop owners told CNA that while business has dropped, local customers have started to return in the past month or two.
LISHA chairman Mr Chandra's shop, Jothi, has put a portion of its wares online after more than half a century on Campbell Lane selling flowers, prayer items and Indian household essentials.
He had thought about adopting e-commerce in the past, but that idea was finally put into action during the COVID-19 crisis, he told CNA, while urging other businesses to do the same.
"We are open 365 days in a year, we even open on Deepavali day ... Jothi never closes," he said. "But then the whole scenario just changed when all businesses had to close."
Immediately, he started uploading information and photos of his products on a website, and within 10 days, he activated his online business and began getting orders, he said.
Another business that has expanded online is SIS premium meats, which has a shop on Buffalo Road. Second-generation CEO Joyce Kingsly said that she broadened their product range from mainly mutton and chicken to other foodstuff, and began home deliveries when the circuit breaker started.
"I thought if I create a meat and seafood bundle, you can sent it to your loved ones because you can't see each other during that time. Then I went on to fruits, then I went on to snacks and all that," she said.
"I also did live online bidding for meat and seafood ... that's when I started on to other (things), and invented the sari hamper."
She is going ahead with plans to open another shop, and now has problems finding workers to cope with the additional delivery orders.
But not every business is convinced that this is the way forward for them. Mr Chandra admitted that many business owners in Little India are busy with their day-to-day operations, and have little time to think about moving online.
Shop owner Mr Mohamed said that he did not think it was practical for small sundry shops like his, while Mr Vijayasekaran Ramachandran, who runs a grocery store, said that he "does not prefer online" but takes orders by phone and via WhatsApp.
"I think that after COVID-19 is over, the workers come back, (then) maybe normal lah," he said.