All images by Stephanie Lee for RICE Media
Residents saunter along a busy corridor of an HDB void deck in Jurong East. Shops line the corridor—a dry market peddling fresh fish and crisp vegetables, a coffee shop, and minimart, Hock Ghee Seng Mart.
Neatly cut-out pieces of cardboard display promotions, written in black marker and dotted with exclamation marks. “5 for $3.60!!!” one such sign yells.
Customers squeeze past each other along the narrow aisles, their eyes scanning the shelves. Just as quickly as they enter, they grab their items, pay, and dart out of the shop.
“Our minimart is here for convenience. Our customers are usually here when they’re in a rush or if they need to get one thing. If not, they’ll go to the supermarket instead,” Hock Ghee Seng Mart owner Jessie Lim tells me.
Tucked at the back of the store is a staircase that leads up to an apartment just above the shop—something you don’t see anymore in newer HDB estates.
The room just above, however, has been fully converted for store operations: Packaging, storage, and a space for employees to rest and have quick breaks.
The storefront simply does not have enough space for employees to idle away, nor do they have the time to do so. Not in this economy.
Of GSTs and Family Legacies
It’s Thursday morning. A line forms in front of the cashier. Customers, some presumably decked in the clothes they woke up in, have their hands full—one carrying a basket filled with cans of Carlsberg pilsners close to his chest. It’s beer-o-clock somewhere in the world, I remark to myself.
49-year-old Jessie has been running the outfit since 2002, taking over her father and uncle after they retired from the business.
It was in 1985 when her family got into the minimart business. Her father, originally a pig farmer, bought over the shop after farms were phased out in Singapore.
Today, she runs the business with her sister and a few other part-time employees. “Chinese New Year has been busy for us. We’re also coping with the GST increase,” she explains. Another employee is hunched over a box of wheat crackers, armed with a price-tagging contraption in one hand.
“The GST increased from seven percent to eight. Suppliers increased their prices by more than one percent. Everything along the supply chain, from raw materials to packaging and transport, has also increased,” she explains matter-of-factly, pointing to a packet of biscuits along the shelves.
Previously, a packet of biscuits originally cost two dollars. The price has since increased by 60 cents.
“Some customers are very basic. They only eat a packet of biscuits in the morning. Now that the price has increased, they can feel the pinch. So they give feedback to us and complain about the prices.”
It’s not only biscuits. Utility bills have also increased. When the price of electricity rises, so does the price of packets of drinks stored in fridges and freezers.
“We try our best but we cannot absorb all of the increase. Sometimes, we have to pass it on to the customer.”
Patrons of the minimart, at least according to Jessie, can only shrug. Prices of everyday items have increased across the board. The humble minimart is not spared this phenomenon of course.
Taken For Granted
We find ourselves in the store room above the minimart. An altar sits against the wall of the living room. Around the altar are tables and chairs for packaging and stock-taking.
My chat with Jessie begins on a solemn note. “I don’t see myself running this business in five years’ time. Prices are increasing. It’s difficult to compete with supermarkets and e-commerce stores.”
Indeed, Singapore’s millennials are now more willing to purchase fresh groceries online. There are higher levels of trust among Singaporeans in e-commerce giants. Not to mention it’s just a lot more convenient to have groceries delivered.
While minimarts and their owners are left behind, they’re ready to fill the gaps e-commerce giants and supermarkets can’t—immediate needs like cigarettes and off-the-shelf liquor, for example. Plus, they serve the needs of customers who lack easy access to online shopping.
“30 percent of our customers are foreigners. They usually buy beers from us. Strangely, they don’t buy all their beers at once. They make multiple trips. Every time, it’s just one beer. The uncles too,” Jessie explains.
Therein lies the strategy minimart owners employ to keep their businesses afloat: Absorbing costs for the things their customers spontaneously need.
It’s a much more personal touch than visiting a supermarket. Here, owners pay attention to regulars and adjust prices accordingly—the flexibility of running your own minimart is also your greatest strength.
“A lot of our customers shop at our store for certain things, such as cigarettes, beer, rice, and flour. We cannot help but rely on these goods to survive.”
Even then, cigarettes, which are a minimart’s selling point by design, are now being sold less. “Tobacco suppliers give us a standard price. For one packet, we can earn a fixed amount. About 90 percent of provision shops don’t follow the selling price. We charge much less. Only a small markup.”
Perhaps to compete with the proliferation of vapes, Jessie floats up.
“It’s about cost. If it’s cheaper and more convenient, they can rely on the black market. Vapes are cheaper than cigarettes.”
No one can blame market forces—it’s only logical that customers turn to alternative options if they’re cheaper. Grocery shopping in Malaysia, petroleum in Johor, Aliexpress replicas. The same goes for vices, even if people have to rely on unregulated products such as vapes and contraband cigarettes to combat rising prices.
This presents another challenge for struggling minimart owners like Jessie. On top of inflation and the GST increase, they have to compete with black markets too.
When it comes to ensuring the survivability of the store, Jessie tells me it really boils down to listening to the customer. And being a store manager, accountant, and cashier helps with all of that.
Rescuing the Minimart
Of course, minimart owners cannot do it all by themselves. They are at the mercy of a host of circumstances beyond their control.
Suppliers have their own bottom line to look out for. Customers have to stretch that dollar and will move to a cheaper mart at the drop of a dime. What may be seen as unwelcome government regulations on the ground serves bigger macroeconomic goals—a GST increase to support bigger public spending, for example.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also the government that can help Jessie to continue serving the community in Jurong East. For now, all she can do is increase her prices with the GST increase.
The only positive that came out of it all was the CDC vouchers, says Jessie. “The CDC vouchers really helped. On good days, we can rake in about $800 just from CDC vouchers alone,” she mentions while walking to the cashier counter.
“The GST increase made some of our items more expensive. If not for the CDC vouchers, our profit would have decreased by about 20 percent.”
The afternoon rush begins. A queue appears, much longer than the one in the morning. Her sister is on cashier duty today. Another middle-aged man piles a stack of beers on the counter.
“People in the community are looking for the cheapest price. Sometimes they’ll come in and ask for the cheapest of a particular item; the cheapest biscuits or the cheapest jam.”
The greatest challenge of a minimart owner like Jessie is that inflation affects her twice, both as a consumer and as a store owner. In a family-run business, where the lines between her personal and professional life are blurred, financial anxieties are doubled.
Just Another Day at the Minimart
By the end of our interview, the part-time employee had already finished tagging all the items. The boxes and cartons which once dotted the store’s floors are now stacked and ready to be disposed of. Jessie takes position behind a second counter as more customers arrive.
Economic anxieties are inevitable in the life of a small business owner. Her philosophy? To take things one day at a time. It’s worked out well for her so far. Apart from a brief five-year period when she worked elsewhere, Jessie has been helping out at the store since she was 12.
If there’s one thing she learned over the years, it’s that minimarts in Singapore are often taken for granted. They’re there when people need them but missed by the community only after they shutter.
After all, minimart owners, such as Jessie, are part of the on-the-ground fight against the rising cost of living—a concern that will likely be front and centre in Budget 2023. Of course, additional tranches of CDC vouchers will compel customers to return to her store.
But the challenge of keeping the store open, especially after the CDC vouchers run out, remains. She doesn’t know if the concerns of minimart owners like her will be heard as they fall through the cracks when it comes to public consultations.
Unlike the sombre moment at the start of the interview, we bid Jessie farewell on a more optimistic note. “It’s a family business. I took over in 2002 because I wanted to keep the business going. But when my kids are working, I want to retire and rest.”
For now, Jessie will have to sights on something more immediate.
Another customer arrives at the counter.