Where have all the customers gone?

Where have all the customers gone?


Many are cutting back on spending in wake of rising food prices, possible US recession


By Shuli Sudderuddin


When private banker Jeremy Ching went to Robinsons’ yearly sale last week, he found the crowd at the Centrepoint outlet thinner than last year’s.


‘Last year, it was so crowded that I didn’t get to try on anything. This year, I actually bought something,’ said Mr Ching, 24.


The Sunday Times did a check with 20 shoppers in various city locations and found that, like Mr Ching, many were holding on more tightly to their wallets.


Fifteen said they had been going out less often in the last two months. Reason? Gloomy news about rising food prices and a possible recession in the United States.


When we spoke to 100 retailers and food and beverage outlet managers, 59 said they were seeing fewer customers, and at least 10 said business was down by 10 per cent or more.


The rest – 41 shops in large shopping malls, especially beauty and retail electronics outlets – still saw brisk business.


A spokesman for movie memorabilia shop PopcornPop in Suntec City said weekend sales have dropped by up to 50 per cent.


Noting that the Great Singapore Sale will start in two weeks’ time, he said: ‘I’m sceptical about spending going up during the Great Singapore Sale. Spending won’t increase.’


Some shoppers echoed this view. Photographer Colin Koh, 28, said: ‘Why buy during the sale? I have to prioritise and pay for necessities like petrol for my car.’


At Raffles City, customer service agent Christina Simon said: ‘There used to be more people in malls but things are getting more expensive. I tend to eat out less now – twice a month rather than every weekend as I used to.’


Department of Statistics’ figures show that on a year-on-year basis, retail sales declined by 1.3 per cent over a year ago for the month of February.


Also, the latest Business Expectations Survey shows that the services sector is generally cautious about business outlook for April to September this year.


From the survey, 29 per cent of retail firms predicted slower business during this period.


At Suntec City, accessories pushcart operator Wendy Lee has noticed a steep drop in takings compared to the same period last year.


‘We could make about $400 daily last year but this has decreased by about 40 per cent,’ she lamented.


Mr Suzuki Nobuaki, manager of Tonkichi Japanese restaurant, which has outlets in Ngee Ann City, Isetan Scotts and Suntec City, said: ‘Our customers have decreased by 5 to 10 per cent compared to last year. It looks like people are saving on food to cope with the cost of living.’


At Clarke Quay, walkways and restaurants were empty approaching dinner time last week.


Ms Junydah Madon, marketing, event and operation manager for the Tapas Tree, cited the heatwave as one reason for the empty seats outside the restaurant. ‘Customers prefer the air-conditioning inside.’


But she added: ‘Business has been quite slow at Clarke Quay and customer flow dropped last week because it is the off-peak season.’


Mr Benny Lee, marketing manager for Zingrill which runs restaurants such as Breeks, said there has been a 10 to 15 per cent drop in sales in Breeks outlets in town.


‘Our pricing is not expensive, so it could be that fewer people are eating in town because fewer are shopping there,’ he speculated.


New retail entrants are also feeling the pinch. At least three new businesses contacted said that they were not doing as well as projected.


Mr Sreeram Muthiah, shift manager at smoothie and coffee cafe Maui Wowi in Suntec City, said that weekends see more business, but sales have not picked up as quickly as anticipated since the cafe opened three months ago.


‘On Sundays at lunch time, we are sometimes only half-full,’ he said.


Economist Selena Ling, head of treasury research at OCBC, felt that the pessimism could be due to the impression that the global economy is in bad shape.


‘Last year’s optimism is wearing off. Because people have to pay more for staples, they’ll cut down on discretionary spending like shopping and eating out,’ she said.


Ms Lau Chuen Wei, executive director of the Singapore Retailers Association, said March, April and May traditionally see seasonal dips. But she added that higher domestic spending would be a booster.


‘Higher economic activity within a country will not only boost sales but also the entire nation’s economy,’ she said.


One shopper seemed to be in tune with that view. Mr Eric Xu, 25, who works in advertising, still goes out to restaurants and shops.


‘I’m not going to let gloomy predictions change my life,’ he said.


Source: Straits Times

MPs see more residents hit by inflation

MPs see more residents hit by inflation


By Teo Cheng Wee


More Singaporeans, citing inflation woes, are seeing their MPs to ask for financial and housing aid.


Apart from the low-income earners, there are now more individuals from among the lower-middle- income bracket, MPs told The Sunday Times last week.


Half of the 15 MPs interviewed said that more residents have been seeing them for help.


Jurong GRC MP Grace Fu has noticed a 10 to 15 per cent rise in the number of people at her Meet-the-People sessions. She said most are lower-income earners, with many first-timers.


Inflation seemed to be their main cause of concern.


Similarly, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa has been seeing more residents compared to last year, with many saying that they cannot cope with their financial commitments because of their suddenly reduced purchasing power.


Several wanted to downgrade from their current HDB flats, noted Mr Liang.


Half the MPs interviewed noted this growing trend of residents asking for help to downgrade from their current flats because of financial difficulties.


These residents sought assistance because the HDB does not grant loans to those who wish to downgrade.


In the past, this was less of an issue because those who sold their flats would have some cash in hand. They could repay their debts and buy a smaller flat, said Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Baey Yam Keng.


But with the steep property prices now – and high cash-over-valuation s – they would not have extra cash to help them buy a resale flat after selling their old flat, which is why they are appealing for help from the HDB to grant them a loan.


‘They have to turn to HDB because private banks will not loan money to them, since they are already in financial difficulties, ‘ said Mr Baey.


The other emerging trend that some MPs have noticed is the increasing number of lower-middle- income earners at the Meet-the-People sessions – which are usually attended by lower-income earners. About one-third of the 15 MPs interviewed noticed this trend.


Labour MP Halimah Yacob has seen more such residents, although she said she did not have the exact figures.


While bread-and-butter issues do affect them, being in the slightly higher bracket, they also indulge in middle-income expenses like cars.


Thus, increasing Electronic Road Pricing charges and soaring petrol prices have resulted in them asking her for help to defer instalment payments on their cars.


Madam Halimah feels that the lower-middle- income earners who earn over $1,500 but less than $2,000 are ‘particularly squeezed’, as financial help schemes typically have a cut-off at a family income level of $1,500 or lower.


Help may have to be rendered indirectly, through giving their children bursaries or helping them find alternative childcare arrangements if the wife decides to return to work.


Madam Halimah also expressed concern about aggressive advertising promoting purchases on credit.


‘There are ads which tell people that they can drive away a car by just paying $1. There are others that goad people to travel first and pay later,’ she pointed out.


Hong Kah GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad, whose constituency is made up largely of middle-income families, has also seen higher numbers – about 40 cases a week, up from around 26 previously.


Still, MPs observed that the overall outlook was not that gloomy.


Said Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Michael Palmer: ‘When I first started my Meet-the-People sessions in 2006, the problem was unemployment. Even though residents have financial concerns today, at least most people have a job.’


Source: Straits Times

Two new bridges = a 9km scenic walk

Two new bridges = a 9km scenic walk


The wet morning yesterday did not dampen the excitement of Telok Blangah resident Habib Ismail.


He was among 500 residents who watched Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong officially open two pedestrian bridges – Henderson Waves and Alexandra Arch.


With these bridges, Telok Blangah Hill Park is now linked to Mount Faber on one side and Kent Ridge Park on the other.


An avid walker, Mr Habib, 44, a father of two, joined Mr Lee and the other residents on a tour of the bridges.


The bridges complete a 9km chain of greenery in the Southern Ridges, which consist primarily of three large hill parks – Mount Faber, Telok Blangah Hill Park and Kent Ridge Park.


Henderson Waves, at a height of 36m, is Singapore’s highest pedestrian bridge. A wave-shaped, steel-and-timber structure, it spans 274m across Henderson Road. The other bridge, Alexandra Arch, spans 80m across Alexandra Road.


The parks were previously separated by roads and wooded vegetation. Now, one can walk ridge-to-ridge, starting from HarbourFront MRT and ending at West Coast Park.


In 2002, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said it would link up parks in the Southern Ridges as part of the Parks and Waterbodies and Identity Plans.


The project, which took two years to complete, cost $25.5 million.


Apart from the two bridges, the Southern Ridges now also boast the Forest Walk, a 1.3km-long elevated walkway that cuts through secondary forest at Telok Blangah Hill Park; and Marang Trail, which links HarbourFront MRT to Mount Faber.


Mr Lee also officiated the opening of the $13 million Horticulture Park – or HortPark for short.


With 20 theme gardens, HortPark is South-east Asia’s first one-stop gardening and lifestyle hub.


The 23ha park, which has been open since December last year, took two years to build and also serves as a park connector between Telok Blangah Hill Park and Kent Ridge Park.


In his speech, Mr Lee noted that such projects ‘provide a first-class living environment for all Singaporeans’.


He also announced upcoming plans to link the Southern Ridges to the Keppel Waterfront as part of a broader plan to develop a recreational and leisure hub in the south.


This includes having a park connector from Alexandra Arch to Labrador Park, building a mangrove boardwalk at Berlayer Creek and having a waterfront boardwalk that connects Bukit Chermin to VivoCity, with waterfront views along the entire stretch of Keppel Bay.


Details of these plans will be released soon, the URA said.


About 1 million visitors to the Southern Ridges are expected annually, and with the bridges open 24 hours a day, lovebirds might be expected to make a beeline for them after dark, especially as Henderson Waves offers panoramic views of the city and southern islands.


Mr Habib, a senior research supervisor, had stopped his daily jogs at Telok Blangah Hill Park due to work commitments. He is digging out his sneakers again.


‘I’m making plans to walk along the new walk with friends,’ he said with a smile.


Source: Straits Times

Home away from home overseas

Home away from home overseas


Every fortnight, Mr Shahul Hameed, 50, packs his wife and three daughters into the car and drives across the Causeway.


The family’s retreat is a 2,400 sq ft, two-storey semi-detached house in Gelang Patah, Johor. It is part of a gated community called Leisure Farm Resort Residences, located 30 minutes from Singapore.


Their home away from home is where they can indulge in fishing, cycling and take the occasional boat trip to the nearby island of Tioman.


Mr Shahul, a financial planner with NTUC Income, bought the Balinese-style property, which features dark wood finishes and floor-to-ceiling glass windows, about four years ago for RM537,000.


In Singapore, he owns a 1,600 sq ft condominium apartment in Sims Avenue, which cost him $732,000.


He says: ‘When you have money just sitting in your bank, you tend to spend it. So I thought why not buy a second home nearby?’


The family has benefited from the regular weekend getaways, he claims. Since buying the house, he has consistently exceeded sales targets at work. His three daughters, whose ages range between five and 19, have performed better in their studies.


He adds: ‘I believe a change of environment now and then helps you lead your life in Singapore better.’


Owning a holiday home overseas may no longer be a luxury afforded only by Singapore’s super-rich, as more regular folk like Mr Shahul invest in overseas properties too.


Others discovered by LifeStyle include a teacher, an owner of a small business and a marketing consultant, though not all agreed to be interviewed.


Retired teacher Natahar Bava, 62, and his family own a semi-detached house at Sunset Way. But they spend holidays at their second home at the Kennedy Bay Resort in Perth, where their beach-facing, two-storey villa boasts an unobstructed view of the Indian Ocean.


Mr Bava, who has three daughters aged between 20 and 37, bought the house in 1997 for A$400,000 for his second daughter when she enrolled at a university there.


But the girl chose to live in the university hostel instead, so the property became the family’s holiday accommodation.


They visit as often as three times a year to rejuvenate, often paddling out to sea in a pair of kayaks they own.


‘It was a good turn of events that fulfilled an original dream I had,’ says Mr Bava. In 1982, he had taken a group of students to Perth on a school field trip. Smitten by the tranquillity of the place, he swore to one day own a home there.


‘WA (which stands for Western Australia, the territory Perth is located in) also means ‘wait a while’,’ he says in reference to the slower pace of life there.


Being an ‘average Singapore citizen’, he was only able to afford a place 15 years later, he adds.


There are no exact figures to the trend, but in general, developers and property companies who market overseas projects here point to a growing interest among Singaporeans to put their money in homes offshore.


At Colliers International, which has launched recent projects in places like Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Thailand, business in the overseas sector grew four to five times from 2004 to 2007, says its associate director of international projects Michael Tan.


Executive director of DTZ South-east Asia, Mr Heng Hua Thong, adds that the number of overseas property launches in Singapore has also increased.


‘At least every month you have one project launched in Singapore. That’s definitely more compared to one or two years ago,’ he says.


With the local property market only just settling after a spate of sky-high property prices, it makes sense for some to look elsewhere where risks are not so great, says managing director of Orange Tee Global Properties Dave Loo.


The agency markets developments in places like Malaysia, Thailand, Australia and the United Arab Emirates.


Thailand’s market, for instance, has undergone several tax revisions recently to entice foreign investors. An apartment in a place like Phuket can go for as low as $100,000, adds Mr Loo.


While it is still more common for Singaporeans to buy for investment, he estimates that between 30 and 35 per cent of his customers buy properties to use as holiday homes or for their children who are studying overseas.


For the former purpose, resort destinations like Phuket or Bali are naturally more popular than city locales, he adds.


Prominent National University of Singapore lecturer K. K. Seet, for instance, bought a 2,000 sq ft, Thai-Balinese house in Pattaya for $300,000 in September 2006.


Says the 40-something bachelor: ‘I’ve always wanted a house near the sea, which would be impossible to achieve in Singapore, unless one is prepared to fork out millions for Sentosa Cove.’


He bought the house somewhat unexpectedly while on holiday in Pattaya, and now visits about three to four times a year.


Dr Seet says he was attracted to the city’s contrasting flavours, such as the sight of a high school band performing on a pedestrian boulevard, ‘while go-go girls were twirling around poles in a nearby bar even as busloads of tourists were tucking into a seafood buffet in an adjoining restaurant’.


‘It’s this heady mixture where everything is ‘live and let live’ that is fascinating,’ he adds.


Industry players like Mr Peter Thng, executive director of Reapfield Property Consultants, agree that the demographics of overseas home buyers have diversified to include middle-income earners. The agency has sold properties in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Malaysia.


He says: ‘This is not surprising given the affluence of the society and also the fact that many have either lived, studied or worked overseas.’


In the 1990s, middle-aged businessmen formed his main group of customers. Today, apart from professionals, ‘civil servants such as teachers and military personnel form the bulk of our client base’, he says.


For Singaporeans scouting for holiday homes, proximity is perhaps the biggest selling point. Properties in the region, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Australia are favoured, though countries like Malaysia – which offer advantageous exchange rates – have extra appeal.


In a recent survey carried out by Malaysia’s Real Estate and Housing Developers Association, Singapore was identified as its top foreign market. Malaysia has a My Second Home programme, which allows foreigners with a certain amount of capital to buy houses there.


At Johor’s Leisure Farm development, 49 per cent of buyers are Singaporeans or expats based here, says its sales manager Peter Lim. ‘Their profiles include professionals, businessmen, people looking for a shortcut to their dream home.’


Indeed, with holiday homes becoming a prized asset, few owners are willing to rent out their place to vacationers to cover costs. Says Dr Seet: ‘I’m not interested. What if they wreck the place?’


Still, those interviewed by LifeStyle say the returns on their investments have been far from poor. Mr Bava, for instance, reckons his Perth abode is now worth more than twice the A$400,000 he paid.


Mr Shahul is even planning to buy a third home at Leisure Farm, a bungalow 21/2 times the size of his current semi-detached house.


If he cannot find a suitable buyer for his existing Johor property, he will still keep it, ‘as a present for my children’, he says with a smile.


‘When you have money just sitting in your bank, you tend to spend it. So I thought why not buy a second home nearby? I believe a change of environment now and then will help you lead your life in Singapore better.’ – SHAHUL HAMEED, a financial planner, who bought his house in Gelang Patah, Johor, which he visits every fortnight with his family, daughter Nur Istiqamah, eight, wife Nur Asyiqin Abdullah, 35, and daughters Nur Diyanah, five, and Zaakira Mahreen, 19


‘It was a good turn of events that fulfilled an original dream I had.’ – NATAHAR BAVA, who bought a house in Kennedy Bay Resort in Perth, in 1997


‘I’ve always wanted a house near the sea, which would be impossible to achieve in Singapore, unless one is prepared to fork out millions for Sentosa Cove.’ – DR K. K. SEET, NUS lecturer, who has a 2,000 sq ft Thai-Balinese house in Pattaya


Source: Straits Times

My brother doesn’t want China bride to inherit flat

My brother doesn’t want China bride to inherit flat


Q My uncle and brother bought an HDB flat together as joint tenants. They paid the mortgage in full. My uncle died a few years ago, so my brother automatically became the sole owner of the flat. He married a Chinese national last year.


What can my brother do to prevent his wife from getting the flat should he suffer any mishap? He feels that she does not deserve to get the flat as she has not contributed a single cent to the household.


A It would be advisable for your brother to make a will in which he wills away his assets, including the flat, to specified beneficiaries other than his wife. It would also be advisable not to register her officially as a permitted occupier of the flat, as this could give rise to complications over her continued right of occupancy and, ultimately, the disposal of the flat after his death.


That said, as his wife, she is his dependant and would have played some sort of spousal role. Thus, it might not be fair or conscionable for him not to leave anything at all to her after his demise.


It might, therefore, be prudent to bequeath to her some part of his assets, whether in cash or other forms. If he wants to bequeath Central Provident Fund monies, he must make a specific nomination. Otherwise, these will be divided according to intestacy laws, under which his wife would have a share of his CPF.


If your brother fails to provide for her (or for any lawful children from their marriage), she is entitled as his dependant, under Chapter 138 of the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act, to apply to the courts for reasonable maintenance to be paid out of his net estate.


The court will assess her claims and other relevant factors – such as her income-earning ability, present or future sources of capital or income, and conduct towards your brother. If the court deems it appropriate, it will make provision for her reasonable maintenance from your brother’s net estate.


If your brother does not wish to bequeath to her any part of his estate and his reasons are sound – for example, he has more than adequately provided for her in his lifetime (by, say, putting some cash, assets or savings under her name), or if her conduct towards him or the marriage justifies his actions in leaving her out of the will – he should make this clear in his will.


The court will then assess the case in the light of the reasons provided in his will.


Lim Choi Ming

Partner, KhattarWong


Advice provided in this column is not meant as a substitute for comprehensive professional advice


Source: Straits Times

Older ‘new’ condos on the market

Older ‘new’ condos on the market


Leftover units offer immediate occupation, but buyers should take note of some things


With property developers holding back major launches as they wait out the gloomy market sentiment, eager buyers have had to turn to other avenues for a home.


Some with urgent housing needs are looking at older ‘brand-new’ condominiums – developments that have been completed for a number of years but still have unsold units.


At several of these condos, which have had unsold stock for a few years, all the remaining units have been taken up in recent months.


Far East Organization, for instance, held an open house last month for the leftover units at its four-year-old Water Place in Tanjong Rhu. The 437-unit development is now fully sold.


The company’s Tanglin View has about 20 unsold units, going for $1,400 per sq ft (psf).


But do such properties make good buys?


Some of the condos might have been priced above the market at the time they were launched, which is why there are still unsold units, said Mr Ku Swee Yong, the director of business development and marketing at Savills Singapore.


But now that their surrounding projects are mostly sold out, it might be worth paying a premium for immediate occupation or immediate rental income at these completed units, he added.


Another advantage is that buyers get to see the actual unit they are buying – the views, fittings, defects and so on, said consultants.


‘What you see is what you get, so there is less scope for misunderstandings,’ said Mr Colin Tan, the head of research and consultancy at Chesterton International.


What to look out for


Apart from the standard considerations – location, price and design – completed condos come with a few more checkboxes for you to tick off before you sign that contract.


Buyers should ask what the developers have done with the unsold condos since they were completed.


In some cases, the developers have left the units empty, which is what GuocoLand has done with Le Crescendo in Paya Lebar, where would-be buyers can see the actual units that are on sale.


Other developers rent out the unsold homes for interim income, but are willing to sell them with the tenancies.


At The Equatorial, developer City Developments is selling one last two-bedroom unit, tenanted, for $2.1 million.


If the unit has been rented out for five years or more, buyers should check the electrical wiring and plumbing to see whether they need to be changed, said Mr Tan.


‘The danger is that, on the surface, everything looks new and you think the same goes for services that cannot be seen,’ he noted, adding that ‘false ceilings can hide a lot of internal problems’.


While new condos come with a 12-month liability period for defects, this might not apply to condos that have been completed for some time, especially if they have been rented out in the meantime.


Consultants recommend that buyers check with the developers to see if they are willing to make good any defects found within a reasonable period.


For 99-year leasehold condos, it is also important to find out when the clock started ticking on the lease. ‘The buyer needs to check on the remaining lease period as these condos may be marketed as being new,’ said Mr Tan.


Orchard Scotts in Scotts Road, for instance, was completed last year, but its 99-year leasehold tenure started ticking in 2001.


Similarly, River Place in Havelock Road was completed in 2000 but the 99-year lease took effect in 1995.


Can you get a discount?


Some developers, such as Far East Organization, occasionally hold promotions for their completed projects in order to offload the units.


In the past few months, it has offered discounts on completed condos such as Icon in Tanjong Pagar, The Lakeshore in Jurong West and Hillview Regency in Bukit Batok.


Last week, it is understood to have offered stamp duty reimbursements for Hillview Regency units.


DTZ Debenham Tie Leung’s executive director, Ms Margaret Thean, said whether you can get a discount is ’subject to location’.


‘If a project is situated in a prime location, it is unlikely you will get a bargain. But if it’s a mass market project and on the outskirts, you’re likely to have more room to negotiate,’ she said.


Source: Straits Times