I refer to the collection of reports (May 15, 2010) by Miss Carolyn Quek and Miss Jessica Lim on how the proliferation of major convenience stores in heartland neighbourhoods has posed significant threats to smaller provision shops. Even though economically it is definitely logical for larger, well-equipped corporations to out-wrestle their smaller counterparts, the nostalgia and cultural significance tagged to the provision shops – affectionately known as “mama” shops – makes it an unfortunate pity.
My grandfather used to operate a small provision shop in Balestier; and while the scale of operations was considerably limited, the front of the shop was a constant hub-bub of activity. Residents from the surrounding neighbourhood gathered around to converse and exchange about their daily happenings as they made purchases of household items and various necessities. Throughout my adolescence, I remember fondly the memories of serving an assortment of snacks and drinks, after school, to the men who gathered around the small tables to chat and joke. In essence, the provision shop was more than a mere store selling goods and offering services; like the wet markets, it was a venue of affection, friendship and wondrous connection.
Times have changed, and many might opine that the advent of a variety of communication channels has made keeping in touch more accessible and efficient. Yet, the “human touch” of these smaller shops – in the form of personalised service, familiarity of the staff, and the tremendous attention to details et cetera – remain inimitable for the large grocery chains. Let us not forget their historical and traditional importance as well.
It is possible and feasible to harmonise the advantages of the large convenience chains with the positives of the smaller provision shops. Rather than entirely replacing the existing stores, PSC Corporation’s iEcon chain has offered the latter the possibility of maintaining the business whilst enhancing the relevant standards and quality. This provides the shop-owner the same flexibility in management and staff employment, and continues the precious “human touch” in sales and interaction. Other than such cooperative schemes, individual provision stores can band together regionally to make bulk purchases and negotiate as a group: so as to capitalise on available economies-of-scale. This can be endeavoured as improvements are made in terms of general cleanliness, product specialisation and introduction of new services to cater to diverse needs.
The wheels of development must turn; yet, wherever possible, let us progress without losing too much of our valuable heritage and memories.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.