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Covid-19: New brick-and-mortar businesses pop up despite uncertainties

SINGAPORE — As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to put a severe strain on the Singapore economy, some businesses have crumbled. It is not all just shuttered storefronts, however, as new businesses have emerged to try to make their mark despite the tough times.

Business at Mr Rothsman Hunter's barbershop in Haji Lane has been brisk since it opened on Aug 1, 2020.

Business at Mr Rothsman Hunter's barbershop in Haji Lane has been brisk since it opened on Aug 1, 2020.

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  • New business owners believe it is important to keep brick-and-mortar stores around
  • They say that online alternatives are good but lack the personal touch, social interaction
  • Some, after seeing success in home-based business, are expanding to a physical store

 

SINGAPORE — As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to put a severe strain on the Singapore economy, some businesses have crumbled. It is not all just shuttered storefronts, however, as new businesses have emerged to try to make their mark despite the tough times.

Some of the owners of these new businesses told TODAY that they had little choice but to open their doors as they had signed leases months prior to the pandemic.

But others said they started home-based businesses during the circuit breaker period, found success, and have chosen to expand to brick-and-mortar premises despite the challenging economic environment.

Tattoo artist Rothsman Hunter, 38, who opened barbershop 2 Tone Barbers along Haji Lane on Aug 1, said simply that he “just wanted to do it”.

Mr Rothsman had plans with two friends to open a barbershop late last year but they pulled out at the last minute and so the plan was put on hold.

“But in April, the thought just couldn’t leave my mind. It's always been a dream of mine to have my own barbershop. I knew I wanted to do it and my mind was made up, even if I had to do it on my own,” said Mr Rothsman.

In late June, when viewings for units resumed in Phase Two of the reopening of the economy, Mr Rothsman signed a lease and took over a 1,000 sq ft bridal parlour unit which had been recently vacated.

“So many units in Haji Lane were empty and I was asked by friends and family if I was sure about my decision to start a business now. But if not now, then when?

“And everyone always needs a haircut, right?” said Mr Rothsman, who did the renovation of the premises himself.

He added: “You see, as much as it is a business, I also wanted to open this barbershop to foster a sense of community and create a space for my friends who have become jobless because of the pandemic to hang out and learn a new skill. That’s what it’s about now.”

‘NO TURNING BACK’

Personal trainer Zac Chan has also made the bold decision to start his first business venture Rising Fitness, a gym in River Valley which opened on Aug 4, in the midst of the pandemic.

Mr Chan, 28, who signed the lease for the 2,000 sq ft space in late March along with his two business partners, who are also fitness trainers, said: “At that point in time, we didn’t think that the country would enter a lockdown.

“But when the circuit breaker began, we were very close to forgoing the deposit that we had given the landlord to cut any further losses.”

“We thought of transiting to a full online training service which we tampered with for a bit during the circuit breaker, but we felt something was still lacking,” he said.

Rising Fitness, a gymnasium in River Valley, opened on Aug 4, 2020. Photo: Natasha Meah/TODAY

While online training is convenient and efficient, Mr Chan said that it lacks the personal touch the trio hope to provide and so they decided that they would proceed despite knowing that they were stepping into uncertain territory.

“We’re relying on our past clients for now but we’re sure things will pick up. It’s important we keep at it because we really want to ensure the fitness industry remains relevant when this is over. There’s nothing like face to face interaction,” he said.

The reopening of Ms Delphine Liau’s dessert bar, on the other hand, had been in the works for months prior to the outbreak.

“There was no turning back. The store had already been renovated and was ready to open before the circuit breaker came into effect but due to licensing issues, could only reopen after Phase Two,” said Ms Liau, 43, who co-owns Kki Sweets on Seah Street with her husband Kenneth Seah.

The dessert bar, which reopened on July 29, three-and-a-half years after closing in January 2017 called Ann Siang Hill home for four years between 2009 and 2013 and operated at the School of the Arts from 2014 to 2017.

It closed when Ms Liau felt the “economy slowing down” and noticed less foot fall to that location.

While Ms Liau has concerns about reopening at such a challenging time, the circuit breaker was helpful, she said, as she had more time to sort out the new menu, get used to new kitchen equipment, and start a reservation system.

Fortunately, business has been positive, said Ms Liau who added that reservations for weekends are full for the next two weeks.

Ms Liau agrees it is important for physical establishments to remain.

“Many are starting to do home based baking or have opened central kitchens to do delivery which I feel is not sustainable in the long run. We need to pave the way for the next generation of brick and mortar operators.

“We cannot allow it to be taken over by online models. Society thrives as a community and we need social connections to maintain our well-being,” she said.

FROM HOME-BASED BUSINESS TO STOREFRONT

During the circuit breaker, when fashion designer Raffiey Nasir’s business took a backseat due to clients postponing their weddings and canceling events, he began a home-based business selling a variety of cakes and other sweet treats.

“The response was overwhelming and I felt that I could take it a step further so I started to look for units,” said Mr Raffiey, whose takeaway joint Bachelor Brothers along Joo Chiat Road opened on July 25.

Mr Raffiey added that his decision to move his business out of his home was also to make use of food delivery services like GrabFood, Foodpanda and Deliveroo.

Mr Muhammad Muhaimin Suhaimi, 25, also started selling smoothie bowls and salads during the circuit breaker from his home and will soon be expanding to a store along Beach Road that is currently undergoing renovations.

“In the first month of our launch in April, we made almost S$10,000,” he said.

“We noticed that our sales were consistent and that was when I decided we should open at a central location where it’s convenient for both our customers and delivery men,” said Mr Muhaimin, who still operates from his home in Choa Chu Kang.

He added that the push to open a physical store “especially during these uncertain times” came when their landlord promised them a good deal.

“Additionally, at the moment, people are starting to be more health-conscious and I think this is the perfect time to enter the market,” he said.

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Covid-19 coronavirus business online shopping

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