Chinatown vendors languish as Chinese New Year shoppers go online

Danny Ow, a shop tenant along Pagoda Street, says people go to Chinatown nowadays “just to see” and don’t buy much.

By David Sun, Contributor

Chinatown is awash in reds, and catchy Chinese New Year tunes blare from shops lining every street. Young and old soak in the atmosphere. But not everyone is having a happy countdown to the Year of the Dog.

Retailers along the four streets comprising the Chinatown Street Market (Pagoda, Sago, Smith and Trengganu Streets) are seeing a dip in sales as increasing numbers of customers opt to have Chinese New Year delivered to their doorsteps, neatly boxed.

Danny Ow, 51, who rents four units along Pagoda Street, and sells trinkets, decorations and clothes, said “people come here just to see, just to walk, most of them don’t buy anything. Even if they do buy, they haggle and ask for a lot of discounts”.

Meanwhile, online retailer Lazada has reported a three-fold increase in orders this Chinese New Year. There is strong demand for everything from decorative stickers to mahjong tables, chief marketing officer of Lazada Singapore, Jason Huan, told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore.

Traditional products like New Moon abalone gift sets are delivered together with drinks and other household essentials, all ordered at a click, and come with free delivery and returns.

“We are rapidly expanding our assortment, especially seasonal products, to meet this demand,” Huan said.

Pagoda Street in Chinatown. Vendors are finding it hard to compete with online retailers during the Chinese New Year period.

At RedMart, demand for Chinese New Year decorations has more than doubled from last year, said Emma Paterson, Head of Non-Food.

“We have been able to work with local sellers to offer a wide range of decorative options to our customers,” she added. Chin Giap Soon at OneKM mall in Tanjong Katong, for example, retails its products on RedMart.

Concierge and delivery service honestbee has a doubling of orders month-on-month over the Chinese New Year period, and for products that include bak kwa, yu sheng, and Chinese New Year goodies, said General Manager Chris Urban. There has also been strong growth compared to last year, he added.

Everything from incense and decorations to dog plushies and replica oranges are also available in online stores, and the prices have been hard to beat, Chinatown retailers lament.

Anita Li will carry on with her trade for as long as she can despite declining sales.

At Anita Li’s stall on Pagoda Street, which she has rented since 2004, a battery-powered lion dance toy is being sold for $48. A similar toy can be found on the Qoo10 site for under $19 dollars, with shipping at an additional $4.

The 49-year-old has to cover her rent of more than $6,000 a month, and doing it with her fastest moving item – a $1 hand-sewn dog plushy – is hard going.

The unpredictable weather hasn’t helped, retailers said, because “no one walks by” when it rains, according to Li.

Several other Chinatown Street Market tenants Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore spoke to also complained about declining sales, despite a refurbishment of the 159 stalls in the area which began in 2017 and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Some long-time tenants along Pagoda Street have pulled down their shutters or relocated.

“In the past year alone, just along Pagoda Street, two tenants who have been here for more than 10 years each have closed for good. We started business here at around the same time, but now they are gone,” said Ow.

He, himself, gets by “day by day”.

While both Li and Ow are hopeful that somehow, a pickup in the final lead-up to Chinese New Year will change their fortunes – even slightly – before the Dog Year is upon them, they are resigned to festive sales never again being what they were.

“The only thing we can do is carry on until we can no longer do this anymore,” says Li.

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