Boom for some, gloom for others: How Covid-19 reaped unexpected wins and losses for Singapore businesses

(Clockwise from top left) Sheryl Chia, Samantha Chia and Cherrylene Lee; Adeline Tan; Elaine Ng; and Haren Khatau. — Pictures by Raj Nadarajan/Justlyn Yeo/Elaine Ng/Haren Khatau via TODAY.
(Clockwise from top left) Sheryl Chia, Samantha Chia and Cherrylene Lee; Adeline Tan; Elaine Ng; and Haren Khatau. — Pictures by Raj Nadarajan/Justlyn Yeo/Elaine Ng/Haren Khatau via TODAY.

SINGAPORE, Oct 26 — In early June, Haren Khatau put out an advertisement on online marketplace Carousell offering bicycle repair services. It has since become a full-time business.

“I just put up the ad out of sheer boredom,” said the 28-year-old Singaporean who worked in the hospitality industry in India and had returned to Singapore in April.

“I thought I would be handling a bike a week but the next thing I knew, everyone was coming to me left, right and centre.”

As soon as a week after the advertisement went live, Khatau consistently received at least five to six jobs a day.

It was busiest during Phase One of the circuit breaker exit (June 2-18), when he worked from 8am to 10pm daily to meet the demand. He even roped in his brother to help.

Bicycle shops in general appear to be doing well during the Covid-19 pandemic, and they believe this is due to a revival in interest in cycling.

Zechariah Tan, who runs Progression Bikes in Kovan with three other friends, said there was a surge in orders once the circuit breaker measures were lifted in June

The shop does repairs and builds customised bikes from scratch, and soon customers who sent their bicycles in had to wait for as long as a month before they could see their bikes again.

Tan said they went from having time to idle to having to activate all four of them nearly 24 hours daily to ensure that they could clear the backlog of orders.

“It was so overwhelming,” said Tan, 20. “We got to the point where we couldn’t cope. There was a constant flow of appointments and it was really hard to keep up, especially for newbies like us.”

Azhar Abdullah, marketing and distribution manager for bicycle shop Treknology3, said it has seen a 15 to 20 per cent growth for bicycle sales and repairs through the pandemic.

Bicycle shops are not the only businesses that have seen an unexpected boom in sales.

Furry companions wanted

Cattery ChubbyBuddy Cats, which breeds and sells pedigree cats, has seen an increase of about 500 per cent in enquiries about its kittens.

“We used to have a waitlist of about 10 to 20 families at any one time, but the waitlist has grown to about 200 families in a span of a few months,” said owners Cherrylene Lee, 30, Samantha Chia, 32, and Sheryl Chia, 32.

The same was observed at another cattery, Playground Ragdolls.

Co-founder Wang Zijing, 29, said the number of inquiries the shop receives has doubled since the end of the circuit breaker.

But Lee said despite the surge in interest, ChubbyBuddy does not intend to match a kitten to every household as the trio are hobby breeders who do not breed to demand.

“The beauty of keeping a waitlist and making kittens available only to select families is that impulse buyers are necessarily filtered out,” she said.

Baked treats galore

Home-based bakers told TODAY that sales have been brisk since the circuit breaker in April, when many of them saw sales spike by as much as 50 per cent.

Some of them have even started to bake on the weekdays, when in the past they could fulfil orders after baking over a weekend.

Adeline Tan, 24, who has since made her business full-time, said her followers on Instagram have also doubled because of the boost.

The demographics of her customers have also shifted — she has seen older customers and people who have not ordered from a home business before.

Juliana Ramli, 44, of Crumbs N Batter said she expects the demand to persist.

Splurging on luxury cars

Car distributors Eurokars Group has seen sales of its Rolls-Royce cars surpass its expectations since lockdown measures have eased, said executive chairman Karsono Kwee.

While he declined to reveal the numbers, Kwee said Eurokars’ overall retail sales have increased 15 per cent in terms of year-on-year growth despite the pandemic.

Lim Ah Poh, 56, owner of Motorway, which sells pre-owned luxury cars, said since July he has seen 20 to 30 per cent more people coming in to look at the cars.

About 10 to 20 per cent more people choose to purchase a car after a viewing, compared to before the coronavirus outbreak, he added.

Lim attributed this to mindset changes — the pandemic has given some customers a “you only live once” attitude and so they chose to buy a car just in case they cannot do so in the future.

Online sales executive Sijia Tay, 24, said she recently bought her BMW 118i M Sport because her uncle also wanted to buy a luxury car and there would be discounts if they purchased it together.

The attractive interest rates for a car loan — about 1.95 per cent — also gave her the nudge that now was a better time than ever to buy a luxury car.

Suffering from downstream effects

While the pandemic has been a boon for some, there are businesses reliant on travel that have been hit by the downstream effects of the embattered tourism and aviation sectors.

But because they are not traditionally considered to be part of the tourism sector, they have not received as much help from the authorities as others in the sector had.

Pet hotel owners told TODAY that boarding numbers have fallen dramatically — as much as 80 per cent — since Singapore’s borders were closed to visitors.

Some have even chosen to bring down the shutters in order to cut their losses, they said.

Most of them, like Breakfast at Fluffy’s owner Elaine Ng, 44, have been keeping afloat through pet daycare and grooming services.

Ng has also started offering pet birthday parties to provide more unique offerings for customers.

But Steven Lee, 36, who runs Pawty Paws, noted that pivoting to another business model would be challenging due to the licence conversion process.

“After you convert, it’s also very hard to convert back because dog hotel licences are very difficult to get now,” he added.

Though they are in different sectors, Wong Yuen Lik, director of travel store X-Boundaries, agreed that adapting one’s business is not easy.

“If you want to pivot, you need cash to buy products (but) our existing inventories are not moving, so where do we get cash to buy new products?”

He has started to bring in other items — such as barbeque pits and bicycles. But the volume still cannot cover the drop in sales — a 70 per cent fall in July and August.

Money changers have also been affected, and they said the best they can hope for is for the borders to reopen as soon as possible.

It is especially challenging for smaller operators like VS Exchange at The Arcade, who do not have a remittance licence to fall back on.

“We’re just waiting for the borders to open,” said owner VS Tajdeen. “We don’t expect business to pick up immediately, but at least opening the borders is a good sign and a step in the right direction.” — TODAY

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