By: Wenting Ang and Reta Lee
Amid the struggles and uncertainties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers and brands across the globe suffer extensively from the social distancing and travel restrictions put in place to curb the virus.
Even before the lockdown kicked in, the drop in tourists due to the pandemic had already brought about the first wave of challenges for many lifestyle brands. In April, apparel brand Esprit announced that it will shut all of its 56 stores in Asia outside of China, including 12 outlets in Singapore. Dubai based online luxury retailer The Modist, a Canadian footwear brand Aldo Group, and dessert brand Dean & DeLuca had all fallen victim to the pandemic, leading to their bankruptcy filings.
Closer to home, Yahoo Lifestyle SEA talked to brands in Singapore and Malaysia on their decisions to shift operations online or even biting the bullet and shutter doors to tide through the pandemic.
Tiong Bahru is suffering another loss; their independent neighbourhood bookshop BooksActually will be shutting down its physical operations and moving online, according to a statement shared on Saturday (12 Sept).
BooksActually has been closed since 4th April due to the previous Circuit Breaker measures and operating from a home basis, conducting Instagram Live chats with authors and members of the local arts scene.
In a Facebook post shared by owner Kenny Leck, BooksActually turns 15 years old this year, but it has been "the strangest year of all, whether for an individual or a business entity like ours."
He added: "As the world changes around us, the bookstore has to move in tandem as well. As it ushers into the 15th year, BooksActually will transform fully into an Online Store. It is a new beginning for all of us, not just our team but also for you, accompanying us on this journey ahead. As horrible as the pandemic has been, it has also given BooksActually its "Online Store Sea Legs". After nearly half a year of being solely an Online Store, we are now ready to make it a reality."
The bookshop was started by Leck and another co-founder Karen Wai in 2005.
To purchase books online, head on to BooksActually Online Store.
“When the circuit breaker kicked in, it was definitely impossible for us to function as a record store or serve drinks as a bar,” Darren Tan, the founder of White Label Records Singapore shared. Despite receiving help from the Enhanced Jobs Scheme that the government rolled out to help SMEs tide through the difficult periods ahead, it could only help offset some of the essential spendings.
The lean team of three had to give up employing their part-timers, mostly students, during the lockdown. “It saddens me. I have spent the past two years getting to know them and working with them, and not being able to keep them on (due to COVID-19).”
With the shift placed on moving businesses online during the pandemic, Darren and team had decided to go back to their roots to overcome the challenges thrown to them with the enforced islandwide shutdown of non-essential businesses. “We have always been a web and social media-based company. We are taking this period to look back to our core business of online media.”
Asking Tan on his plans in the near future, seeing that coronavirus is still running its deadly course, he shared with us #vinyloftheday, an online music community platform that aims to bring vinyl and music collectors together, and is currently one of the biggest music and vinyl communities in Southeast Asia.
“We now look to push forward with #vinyloftheday and building Singapore Community Radio platform in hope that we’ll be able to do our part for the future of Singapore’s arts, culture and music. I hope our customers continue to support the artists you love, especially in these challenging times and hope to see them soon again!”
Meanwhile, Adeline Chong, founder & Chief Curator of Snackfood in Bangsar, Malaysia gave us an insight into how the MCO had made it impossible for them to continue operations.
“Not only it has shaken our financials, but we have also made operational loses during the 3.5 months lockdown.”
In her 10th year run now, Adeline knew there would be a change coming up and the pandemic helped “made this decision clearer.”
Receiving a small relief under the Geran Khas PRIHATIN (GKP)/ Special Grant of RM3,000 to Micro-SMEs that were affected by COVID-19, Snackfood “didn’t pursue more because our reason for exit is different,” Chong shared.
Looking to recharge and reimagine a Snackfood 3.0, the founder is looking forward to time off.
“I wish to take time off to nourish my spirit, nurture my family relationships, and spend more playtime with my daughter, Jade.”
However, this will not be the last you hear from the entrepreneur.
“My next task will be to formalise an online shop. But I wish to explore beyond conventional e-commerce of click-and-buy. Currently, Snackfood engages shopping through “chat commerce” via various features offered on Instagram. I love this method because we get better insights through conversations with our customers from all around the world. Special requests can be made, and if you wish to video chat, we are ready. This is almost first-class customer service we all deserve in the digital age.”
In the meantime, Chong promised that Snackfood on Instagram and Spotify fresh will continue to be updated. To her customers in Singapore, the founder wished to thank everyone who had been a part of Snackfood. “Thank you for making Snackfood your day trip destination. Let’s stay connected!”
Back home in Singapore, while an average of 5500 companies was set up during this period from 2015 - 2019, only about 3800 business entities were created in April 2020. In the meantime, an approximate of 3800 companies shuttered in April, 100 more than the same period over the past five years. This does not take into account businesses where part of their business or stores were closed down due to the pandemic.
With gyms and yoga centres shuttering over the past three months during the circuit breaker, many end up making the tough decision to close down certain outlets to ensure most stay afloat. One person who knows the struggles that were brought on by the mandatory closure is Ashly Lou, the founder of Yoga Inc., Singapore.
“Tiong Bahru outlet was around for four years and we would not have closed it if not for this pandemic. The overheads that we have to pay (rent, utilities, staff, etc) while not being able to operate is too much to bear, and we expect to have stringent restrictions to class size even after reopening.”
Making the tough decision to shutter their Tiong Bahru outlet, Lou let on that she had to forfeit the security deposit due to the closure and reserve her resources for the other four outlets.
Being one of those who did not manage to get much government aid for her business, Lou was, however, thankful that three of her locations were under government landlords and received a 4-month waiver in rent.
With the pandemic continue to affect lives, Lou is less optimistic on recovery. “It's too early to think about recovering now. I could only think about how to lose less money in the next few months, and as much as possible, without shortchanging our members.”
Operating with a high running cost, Ashly shared that the business will not be sustainable if they had to serve less than ten pax per class. Social distancing, put in place to help flatten the curve, will drastically limit Yoga Inc.’s operating capability.
Having to let go of some staff and teachers due to the closure of Tiong Bahru outlet, Lou is doing her best to keep as many staff on her payroll as she could.
“We hope this (the pandemic) would not last long.”
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