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SME Diaries: How I kept my 48-year-old Chinese medicine shop relevant during the pandemic

In this final instalment, Mr Chong Leong Thye, 70, the long-time owner of a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Hougang, recounts how business suffered when movement restrictions turned the heartlands into a ghost town. Venturing into e-commerce, and expanding the shop’s product range, helped grow its customer base.

SME Diaries: How I kept my 48-year-old Chinese medicine shop relevant during the pandemic

Mr Chong Leong Thye of Han Seng Thye Medical Products Trading, with his wife Wong Sai Moy, in their shop in Hougang, on May 24, 2022.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which form 99 per cent of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 keenly. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts from SME owners and managers on the highs and lows of running a business in the pandemic.

In this final instalment, Mr Chong Leong Thye, 70, the long-time owner of a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Hougang, recounts how business suffered when movement restrictions turned the heartlands into a ghost town. Venturing into e-commerce, and expanding the shop’s product range, helped grow its customer base.

When people think about shopping, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) shop located in the heartlands may not come to mind.

But for close to 50 years, my wife and I have devoted our lives to running our business in Hougang. We have watched many of our long-time customers grow up and start their own families alongside us.

We experienced our fair share of ups and downs over the decades, but nothing could have prepared us for Covid-19.

The heartlands were like a ghost town during the circuit breaker period in 2020. No one came to us to purchase their essential products.

The drastic dip in daily sales hurt our cash flow, which dropped by nearly 30 per cent when our store was closed for two months over that period.

More urgently, we had a piling inventory count, and perishable products such as baby formula and medicine that would soon reach their expiry dates. That was a very stressful time for us, and we had so much uncertainty over how to sustain our business.

We knew from our daughter and son-in-law that consumer behaviour was shifting, with younger customers preferring to buy online. But after so long relying on physical retail, we didn’t know how to get started.

Thankfully, during the launch of Enterprise Singapore’s Heartlands Go Digital initiative in October 2020, a business advisor from the SME Centre@ASME reached out to us to share more on e-commerce.

He walked us through the benefits of channels like Shopee, and the rising demand for e-payments as customers were worried about Covid-19 transmission through cash.

With his support, we became a Shopee seller and expanded our product range to include milk formula and other baby products, on top of our TCM products. Our crisis became our opportunity, and we have had more than 1,500 transactions on Shopee alone since June 2021.

Not only have we been able to reach out to younger customers in our neighbourhood, we have also expanded our audience base across the island.

We are thankful that the Covid-19 situation in Singapore is better now and have seen more customers return to shopping at our physical outlet.

At the same time, we still see the value of maintaining our Shopee platform to reach new customers. We also continue to accept PayNow at our shop to keep prices competitive and appeal to more people.

However, one challenge that we still face today is the shortage of manpower.

Currently, it is taxing on my daughter and son-in-law to process e-commerce orders at night while coping with their day jobs. We hope to get assistance from the Infocomm Media Development Authority to better consolidate our operations and scale digital business growth.

Three years ago, I would have never imagined that my TCM shop would ever go online, or that I would now accept e-payments. It only goes to show how we must always be open to change, be willing to ask for help, and be ready to transform when the time is right.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Mr Chong Leong Thye, 70, is the owner of Han Seng Thye Medical Products Trading. Both he and his wife have been running the store in Hougang Central since 1974.

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SME Diaries Covid-19 business traditional Chinese medicine

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