Singapore's Struggling Hawkers Devise New Way to Stay Alive

Foot traffic has dropped drastically in Singapore's hawker centres causing more to offer delivery


What are Hawker Centres?

In Singapore, hawkers are food vendors who operate small stalls that sell popular food items for low prices. They often operate out of hawker centres, which are "traditionally the centre of community life for many." Hawker centres traditionally act as common culinary meeting points for friends, families and colleagues instead of traditional table service restaurants. As of right now, there are over 100 hawker centres all over Singapore, each packed with a variety of hawkers selling food that ranges from simple street food to Michelin-starred offerings. In Singapore, hawker centres and stalls are a huge draw and serve as a "magnet for locals and tourists-in-the-know." However, this staple of Singapore's culture and history is potentially at risk of vanishing as hawkers face an uphill battle for business. 


Why are Singapore's Hawkers and Hawker Centres Struggling?

While many would think that the Coronavirus outbreak is the sole culprit that has caused Singapore's hawkers to struggle, the problem actually stems further back than that. For many years now, Singapore's hawkers have been run by members of an older generation. "Street food hawkers are ageing - the average operator is 59, according to a government study." As hawkers get too old to continue operating their stalls, they inevitably are forced to shut up shop as "few young Singaporeans aspire to a profession that requires them to work long hours in sweltering temperatures for relatively low pay." Another reason that Singapore's hawkers have been struggling is because of "changing tastes and habits as incomes rise." 


Of course, while the aging population of Singapore's hawkers is a worry and rising prices are a concern, the most immediate crisis is how severely the COVID-19 virus is reducing foot traffic. Given that "dining at all outlets from the fanciest restaurants to no-frills coffee shops has been banned since April 7 and is expected to continue until at least June 1," hawker centres have seen foot traffic plummet. Furthermore, since "residents are strongly urged to stay home," there will be even fewer visitors to hawker centres. The result of reduced customers visiting hawker centres has caused in a sharp decline in business. "Hawker Melvin Chew saw his business drop by two-thirds as a result of the lockdown." Clearly, this is not sustainable for any business, let alone Singapore's iconic hawkers. 

What are Hawkers Doing to Combat Falling Sales?

As a tight-knit community, hawkers have banded together to form help groups on social media so they can tackle this crisis together. When the government shutdown order was announced, Melvin Chew, who owns a hawker stall, decided to do something about it. "He created a Facebook group called Hawkers United - Dabao 2020 - to help hawkers and customers connect to arrange takeaway food orders and home delivery." Dabao, when translated to English, means takeaway. Since being created, the group has amassed a staggering "250,000 members."

When asked why he started the Facebook group, Chew said, "If you want to survive you have to accept the use of technology, you have to engage in social media and you have to do home delivery." He further elaborated that he was worried older hawkers would not be able to navigate the internet and build online storefronts and platforms from where they could reach customers and sell. 

Real Hawker stories from Singapore - How Bad is the Situation and is Delivery Helping?

In Newton Food Centre, which was one of the locations featured in the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, "only 10 or so stalls out of nearly 100 have remained open during the pandemic." Esther Foo, owner of Hai Yan BBQ in Newton Food Centre, revealed that her income "has been halved and is supported largely by home-delivery orders." She also said that government subsidies are a help. 

Another pair of hawker stall owners named Henry Ong and Lucy Chng, "who are in their 60s and run a Hokkien mee (noodle) stall" said that the number of customers visiting their stall was about 20 percent of the usual amount of foot traffic. Lucy Chng said that the stall was surviving because "they got on social media to advertise their home-delivery service." Business rose by about 50 percent after the social media adverts went up. 

Kueh Ho Jiak, a mother-daughter-run hawker stall that sells desserts, used to operate from a food cart and then made the shift to owning a brick and mortar storefront. Sales rose after that, but ever since the virus began, they noticed their sales had dropped to only "40 percent" of what they had been previously. Shifting tactics and offering promotions and online delivery resulted in a sales bump of "150 to 200 percent."


Why Current Food Delivery Platforms May Not Be the Ideal Solution

Singapore's ambassador to the World Food Travel Association, Lionel Chee, points to a few key issues with the current crop of delivery marketplaces and providers in Singapore. He says that, "costs imposed by home-delivery services can increase prices to customers by 35 percent and often set a minimum-purchase price." This could be a deal-breaker for stall owners who are known for selling food at affordable prices. For example, "a plate of the popular chicken rice dish can go for as little as 3.50 Singapore dollars ($2.48)." Slap 35% onto that price and it makes a big difference in the minds of Singaporean customers who are already struggling with their own economic worries. 

Lionel Chee predicts that "after the lockdown is lifted the existing 25,000 licences issued to hawker stalls and food kiosks could fall by between 5,000 and 7,000." This potentially means that over 20 percent of Singapore's hawkers could be gone before restrictions are eased. 

Clearly, a new type of delivery platform is required in the marketplace that doesn't charge restaurant merchants such high fees. Since many hawkers require a space-efficient and convenient solution, integration directly into a hawker's existing POS system would negate the need for them to deal with two separate systems. This would enable prices to remain low, improve efficiency and give hawkers the confidence to remain open and ride the virus out.