Going Digital? Mission Possible

Hawkers United – “Dabao” 2020’s Takeaway from the Pandemic Fallout

In March 2019, Singapore had submitted a nomination to inscribe its hawker culture on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Although much had been said then about the importance of the hawker trade, a year later, it was struggling on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the pandemic worsening in Singapore, the government had on 7 April 2020 imposed a “circuit breaker”, under which most workplaces would be closed and students would adopt full home-based learning. Those in the food and beverage (F&B) trade, such as hawker centres and other F&B establishments, would only be able to accept takeaway or delivery orders. Dining in was not allowed.

Shortly after, second-generation hawker Melvin Chew, who ran the Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap stall at Chinatown Complex Food Centre with his mother, saw that sales had fallen by 50% to 70%. The non-techie hit upon the idea of getting hawkers to promote their food through the ubiquitous Facebook platform.

Explaining his reasons for deciding to set up the Facebook group, Chew said, “I foresaw that many hawkers who are used to relying on walk-in customers will now need to promote their stalls on social media.” However, given that many of them were getting on in years and not IT-savvy, it would hardly be possible for these hawkers to do so. He added, “Most hawkers do not have any social media accounts or [the] know-how, because we have been dedicated solely to cooking, looking after our day-to-day business, and taking care of customers face-to-face. That’s why I created a space that is free for all hawkers and also welcomes consumers who are interested in patronising these stalls.”

By 19 May 2020, the group, which gained 25,000 members within just two days of its founding on 3 April 2020, had more than 260,000 members, a phenomenal 10-fold jump in less than two months into its existence. Essentially, it allowed hawkers to post their offerings, promotions and takeaway or delivery options, while customers could join the group to pre-order food from these hawkers. Not only were there no advertising and other costs to be incurred, any hawker could post his or her offerings on it.

In view of the worsening situation, the setting up of the Facebook group was a godsend for many. Giving his take on the mind-blowing jump in membership, Chew said, “I think Singaporeans want to preserve hawkers [which are a treasure]… They want to save the auntie, uncle who are like family because [they] buy [these hawkers’] food so often. Whether rich or poor, you go to the hawker centre for comfort food.”

Nevertheless, despite its much-touted benefits, digitalisation was not a panacea for all the obstacles that hawkers faced when trying to take their business online. Even though having a presence on Facebook helped many hawkers survive during the pandemic, it did not work equally well for everyone. Kevin, owner of fish soup eatery Fu Ji at Clifford Centre, pointed out, “[Even after going digital], we only get two or three more orders a day. Some days, we might get zero delivery orders.” Would Chew’s Facebook group become irrelevant in time to come? There would be time to consider that later. For now, the hawker stalls are open for business, and the orders are coming in, both digitally and face-to-face.  

This case is written by Lau Yi Meng, Senior Instructor of Information Systems at SMU; Lo Siaw Ling, Senior Lecturer of Information Systems at SMU; and Thomas Lim at The Centre for Management Practice (CMP) at SMU. The case identifies the factors pushing hawkers to digitalise their business, examines how some hawkers embraced digital tools such as Facebook to survive through an unprecedented circuit breaker, and analyses how hawker operations could change with digitalisation.

To read the case in full, please visit the CMP website by clicking here.