53-year-old Mohamad Mustafa is a provision shop owner who has been in the industry for over 20 years. But, being in this business is no coincidence for him.

Ever since he was a young boy, he will always go to the market after school and work with shop owners, as he wanted to learn the trade in order to become a provision shop owner in the future.

“During my schooling days, I didn’t concentrate much in my studies as my main goal was to find ways to earn money,” he said.

Being born in a poor family, Mr Mohamad started working from a young age, and his first job was in the Army. Right after that, he drove trailer for more than 10 years before venturing into the provision shop business. In fact, even when he was a trailer driver, his passion for this business never stopped as he will always help shop owners during his free time as he wanted to learn the trade.

Fortunately, in the 90s, he managed to open a provision shop in Marsiling before moving to other locations over the years including Woodlands North Bazaar. At the time of this interview with TOC, Mr Mohamad is operating out of two stalls in a private wet market at Admiralty.

Tough competition from big supermarkets

Although business was lucrative in the 90s where he would be able to gain profit of almost S$10,000 a month, but things slowly began slowing down in the 2000s, mainly due to the presence of giant supermarket chains like NTUC, Sheng Siong and Giant. Today, he can only take home profit of about S$4000 to S$5000 per month.

He added that the toughest part of operating a provision shop in this era is that all these big players are squeezing them, forcing them to either cease operation or barely make ends meet. This is because they don’t get help from the Government or resources to compete with such big players.

“Provision store operates like a family business and we can’t get the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) market which is cheap. When it comes to the private market, the rental is very high. In fact, a small shop like mine costs S$4500 per month, plus conservancy charges which adds up to S$5000,” he expressed.

He added, “When the Government launches a new market, we will open our provision shops and business will be good for the first 5 to 10 years. After that, the Government will place a NTUC or Giant within the neighbourhood, and this will result to tougher competition and we will lose most of our customers”.

Additionally, government-funded NTUC also offers people with a lot of attractive benefits like cheaper price as well as cards that has points-redeemable system. However, Mr Mohamad noted that he can’t give out points to his customers, so small players like him end up not making money.

As such, he pointed out the only solution for him now is to work harder and longer. “Before we used to work 8 hours. Now I come to work at 7am and only leave at 10pm, and I do it seven days a week”, noting that there’s barely any work-life balance in this trade.

Despite the struggle to survive in the industry, Mr Mohamad said that the only factor that keeps him going is his commitment towards the business.

Support from older generation and immigrants

However, he highlighted that middle-aged and the older generation still visits his shop because they look for fresh items as it is hard to come by in these supermarket chains. As he replenishes his wet items like vegetables and meat daily, some customers prefer to buy it from his shop. But, they only buy a small quantity of them. Other than the aged locals, the new citizens from various countries also visit his shop for goods that he imports from the indigenous tribe in Malaysia.

Indeed, during the interview with TOC, customers of that age range came ceaselessly to grab an item or two. Items that would not be available in the neighbourhood megastores, such as leaves and special plant produce.

“Previously, a single person used to buy things worth S$70, but now it has dropped to only S$3 to S$4. This is because they prefer to go to supermarkets like NTUC and get most of the items from there. But when it comes to smaller raw goods, they rather buy it at a provision shop as they don’t have to wait long in the queue just to buy one or two items,” he stressed.

Calls for a reduction in rental

Since provision shop owners’ revenue is shrinking tremendously in recent times, Mr Mohamad urges the Government to consider reducing their rental as it will help them to ease the financial burden.

He also suggested that the authorities have a cut-off point when potential business owner bids for a certain shop by National Environmental Agency (NEA) or Housing Development Board (HDB). Since the bidding can sometimes reach up to S$15,000, the shop owner said that the Government should put a stop to this given that it’s a free market.

“They (Government) should set the bidding for shop at S$3500 and cut it off at maybe S$5000. Even those who bid very high and manage to secure the shop, they end up giving it up after a year as they can’t survive. I can tell you that for provision shops, you cannot bid more than S$6000 as you won’t be able to recover your cost.”

The market where Mr Mohamad had been operating for the past few years, is now closed for renovation and he has since moved on another market as the rental for his current store after the renovation will be increased and to an amount which he does not think he can break even with his daily sales.

When asked if Mr Mohamad thinks that more provision shops will close down in the future, he revealed that it will most likely happen. This is because provision shops are mainly targeted to the older generation who seeks good quality and non-commercial fresh items.

However, the younger crowd and millennials prefer to shop at supermarkets as it is convenient and cheaper. He noted that even his children are not interested to take over his business, indicating that even he will close down his shop in about five years after he retires.