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F&B Briefing: Hawkers go digital to preserve an important part of Singapore’s culture

The number of registered hawkers has gone down to around 13,000 since 2015. 

Chua Jun Ming’s day starts early to man JinWang Handmade Dimsum, a hawker stall that he operates with his father. With the qualifications to become a chef, Jun Ming chose to use his talents to keep the help keep this ubiquitous part of Singaporean culture alive, as hawkers provide affordable places for busy Singaporeans to get a hot, homestyle-cooked meal.

But the longer he stays in the hawker business, the more he sees more of his fellows closing shop. As of 2020, the Lion City has a total of 13,958 licensed hawkers, according to SingStat data, with a whopping majority of 13,483 choosing to do their business in markets and food centres, whilst the rest are considered street hawkers. Broken down, 6,138 hawkers sell cooked food, 5,484 sell market produce, and 2,336 sell piece and sundries. The number of licensed Singapore hawkers has remained steadily in the upper 13,000 mark since it fell from 14,000 in 2015.

With businesses that rely highly on regular customers who pass by their stalls to and from their daily tasks, hawkers have struggled during the last few years due to the social restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

“Even when restrictions were eased, the majority of the populations refrained from going out to minimise physical contact. Hence, for more than a year we have seen numerous vendors who have been in the industry for years, some even decades, choosing or rather being forced to bring their business to the end,” said Chua said in an interview with Singapore Business Review. He added that rising operating costs and rents have also hit their businesses hard.

His business incurred a 30% drop in sales during the Circuit Breaker of 2020. Only when Singapore went on Phase 2 Heightened Alert, where small group gatherings of up to five people was allowed at hawker centres, did business improve for him. Aside from adopting digitalisation, Chua also became more active on social media to promote their business.

Swooping down to save the hawkers

Both the public and private sectors are working on getting hawkers a much-needed boost through digitalisation. The National Environment Agency and the Infocomm Media Development Authority launched Hawkers Go Digital in September 2021, to encourage stallholders to adopt e-payment platforms through cash bonuses. Hawkers were also given assistance on developing a sustainable commercial model and linking them to food delivery platforms.

One such food delivery platform is foodpanda, which launched its own Project Digitalise Hawker in July. The company assigned 50 foodpanda volunteers to talk to over 200 hawkers across five hawker centres to address some of their questions about using their platform.

“Our elder hawker partners were very hesitant to come on board initially as they are under the assumption that the platform device is complicated to operate. Manpower was also an issue. Some hawkers that we spoke to raised their worry of not being able to handle both delivery and dine-in orders during peak mealtimes,” said foodpanda Commercial Director Amirul Shah in an interview with Singapore Business Review. He added that hawkers were also worried that going online could negatively affect their offline business.

Still, foodpanda was able to convince more than 100 hawkers to use their platform. Through the government’s Digital Resilience Bonus scheme, the delivery firm helped facilitate more than $7m worth of grants distributed to its 3,000 foodpanda merchants, including the above-mentioned hawkers.

Shah said that introducing digitalisation to brick-and-mortar businesses, particularly ones operated by older individuals like hawker stalls, has required a lot of effort, as a lot of the hawker partners are intimidated by the process. Foodpanda not only had to create easy to understand infographics, but they also needed to create multilingual fliers to reach out to the culturally diverse hawker ecosystem.

“During the peak of dine-in restrictions last year, we rolled out a 0% commission fee initiative for new hawkers who onboarded with us and waived the onboarding fee for new merchants. This year, we made temporary changes to our fee structures during the months when dine-in was restricted, which included waiving of commissions for delivery orders for hawkers, waiting set up fee for new merchant partners and offering free photoshoots for all merchants,” Shah said.

For the foodpanda director, helping hawkers is more than just a way to get more F&B businesses to list on their platform. It’s a way to preserve a crucial part of Singapore’s culture.

“Hawkers play a very important role in Singapore’s culture. You can’t find the same rich tastiness and smokiness of your wok-fried char kway teow anywhere outside of your favourite hawker stall. A neighbourhood is not complete without these local delicacies and to see them going out of business will be a massive loss for Singapore,” Shah said.

When will the F&B sector recover?

For foodpanda, 2022 would see a recovery of the F&B sector.

“As we move towards an endemic way of life, I am hopeful that the next year will be better for the F&B industry. We are likely to welcome more tourists next year with the various vaccination travel lanes (VTLs) in place, and that should also help to boost demand for food as well, especially those who typically rely on tourist crowds, including hawkers,” Shah said. Singapore currently has VTLs with key cities in the USA, Australia, France, Germany, Canada, India, and the UK, amongst others.

“I would think that the hawker businesses in 2022 will be an even more trying one. The modernisation of the hawker concept has made some hawker food being priced at an uneconomical range, which could partly be attributed to the rising cost of rental, manpower and operating costs,” Chua said.

He added that there’s still a risk of a re-tightening of social restrictions due to the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant in December 2022. This, he added, means that online ordering and food delivery services would still be crucial for small F&B businesses.

“I would like to say that it has been very heartening to see the support from the public for F&B businesses through social media and with the help of food delivery platforms, I believe that we will all have a better 2022,” Chua said.

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