These are some of the supermarkets, convenience stores and neighbourhood provisions shops that I have patronised – Heng Huat store, Lim’s provisions, Ah Woon market, Econ minimarts, mama corner shops, Cold Storage, Fitzpatrick’s, Jason’s, Mustafa, Yaohan, Isetan, Yokoso, My Shop, 7-Eleven, I-tec Supermarket, Carrefour, Giant, Sheng Siong, Prime, Tay Buan Guan, Thai Supermarket (Golden Mile), FairPrice (Welcome). There is a story somewhere for every one of these. Collectively, they are part of the rich Singapore consumer experience. But perhaps the NTUC FairPrice story is the one with the greatest impact on our lives.
As we all know, FairPrice (a name some Singaporeans are strangely still struggling to use either because they cannot break the habit of dropping the prefix or the former moniker, Welcome, seems easier for non-English speaking heartlanders to roll off their tongues) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Older Singaporeans – not the young seniors waiting for their Majulah package but the Pioneer or Merdeka generations – will remember the first Welcome supermarket in central Toa Payoh launched in 1973 by the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. There is a nugget of a story about LKY and what he audaciously did on that opening day captured in a book just launched to mark FairPrice’s 50th anniversary. The book is The Price Of Being Fair: The NTUC FairPriceGroup Story, edited by Sue-Ann Chia and Peh Shing Huei; the publisher is The Nutgraf Books.
I personally have always enjoyed going to Cold Storage, Jason’s or Fitzpatrick’s simply because they catered mainly to the expatriate crowd (whether Westerners or Japanese) and had products which were not available elsewhere. What’s the point of lingering around all-too-familiar shops? I also have a curiosity about what people consume, and whenever I was abroad, I would scour the supermarket shelves of the city I was visiting. I learnt much about what people liked to buy or eat in places ranging from New York to Tokyo to Sydney.
When I was working at Times Periodicals in Thomson Road, I used to drop into the Toa Payoh Welcome outlet almost every day to pick up something on my way home in Paya Lebar. Welcome was very well-stocked, and the prices were affordable. What I liked was that the supermarket then and now was spot on in its offerings – the products as well as the prices. The chain has long gone past the stage of entrenching itself with Singaporeans.
Yet Welcome’s omnipresence in practically every new town neighbourhood is a social service somehow tied in more with the bigger HDB story than most other things. You cannot persuade third-generation Singaporeans to abandon their well-served Bedok comfort to go to the boondocks and wait for the uncertain arrival of a Welcome supermarket. In other words, having a Welcome outlet wherever you are is now taken for granted by many, more so by the new BTO crowd.
Nevertheless, FairPrice did not arrive where it is today without many struggles. The book takes readers through an engrossing journey of such challenges, including an existential one by a $12 billion global giant attempting to dominate the local supermarket scene. Welcome’s original aim was to fight profiteering and inflation. The cooperative did its job so well that it took on bigger commercial roles only after it sorted out the country’s food supply stock and chain.
It has gone into the convenience stores business, moved into Cold Storage’s upper-middle-class territory, tried its hand at going foreign, survived the pandemic, and now has two major decisions ahead. How far down the digital road will it go? And will it get listed?
Happy 50th birthday, FairPrice.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company