Straits Times 17 Jan 2014
The Victoria Wholesale Centre is slowly experiencing a rebound in business since it relocated from Bugis to Kallang Avenue almost two years ago.
Gone are the hordes of tourists who used to wander into the previously bustling centre in Bugis, attracted by the array of dried goods on display there.
Like its predecessor, the new centre boasts a wide selection of goods, ranging from dried fish stomach and dried Chinese sausages to almonds and tidbits, all housed under one roof.
But its location – half an hour’s walk from the nearest MRT station – is more inaccessible and attracts far fewer walk-in customers. When The Straits Times visited it on Wednesday, only a few shops had a steady flow of customers. But merchants said business has been slowly picking up, thanks to their loyal customers.
In March 2012, some 23 of the 40 merchants in the old Victoria Street Wholesale Centre moved to the eight-storey centre in Kallang Avenue, which is tucked inside an industrial estate, after they pooled resources and took bank loans to build it.
The previous site had to make way for the construction of the North-South Expressway, which is expected to be completed in 2020.
The old location was just a few minutes’ walk from Bugis MRT Station. But it now takes at least 10 minutes on foot to get to the new centre from the nearest bus stop.
At De Cheng Xin Xing Trading, the majority of its customers are regulars.
“Business at the old place was different,” said its director, Mr Andrew Goh, 37, the third-generation owner of a family business selling dried goods and high-end products such as bird’s nest and abalone.
“There used to be many passers-by who walked in and we made a lot of petty-cash sales. Now, there is no huge crowd.”
To boost business, the centre is providing visitors with a free shuttle bus service to and from Kallang MRT station, from Jan 3 to 28 daily, in time for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
Some merchants, such as Ah Pau Chop’s 58-year-old owner, Madam Chua Soo Cheng, are hoping that the service will be permanent.
Despite the inconvenience, merchants said their long-time customers, who hail from as far as Bukit Timah, go to their shops because of the personalised service.
“A lot of shops (elsewhere) sell the same things, but here, we let customers try the goods and tell them how to cook and store the ingredients,” said Madam Chua, who has been in the business for 40 years. “The customers trust us. Otherwise, they wouldn’t come back.”
Retiree Soh Mui Wah, who was shopping there, agreed. “At De Cheng, I can sample the abalones so I know what’s inside the can, how big the abalones are and whether they taste good,” she said.
Mrs Catherine Wong, 71, a retired office administrator who lives in Bukit Timah, bought $160 worth of goods such as cashew nuts and dried shrimps.
“There are a lot of choices here,” she said. “I think we save about 15 per cent by buying the goods here.”
It was, however, a different scene at another wholesale centre. On the third floor of Albert Centre at Queen Street, there was barely any space to walk along the narrow aisles when The Straits Times visited the centre, located near the famous Guan Yin temple and shopping haven Bugis Street.
Shopfronts were packed with rows of clear plastic bags filled with dried goods and snacks, such as lotus seeds, peanuts, almonds and pistachios.
Shoppers, mostly middle-aged women, jostled to do their Chinese New Year shopping. Many dipped their hands into the bags to try the snacks before making their purchases.
One of the more popular shops was Tan Sum Joo Provision Shop. Owner Willian Tan, 59, said he has been running the business for more than 30 years, but declined to be interviewed because he was busy.
Ms Pinky Chear, a 24-year-old Malaysian hairstylist who works in Singapore, said her family would ask her to buy snacks from the shops and take them back to her home town in Perak. “It’s popular among my relatives because they said the stuff is fresher here.”
Customers said while the goods sold at Albert Centre can be found in supermarkets and neighbourhood shops, they preferred to come here to soak up the atmosphere. Housewife Jane Lim, 58, said: “Shopping at supermarkets may be more relaxed. It’s not as cramped, the goods have price tags on them and it’s easier to find the items I want. But there is a festive atmosphere at Albert Centre. That’s why I am here.”