Small Business Diary: How I Kept My 48-Year-Old Chinese Medicine Store Relevant During the Pandemic

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up 99% of businesses in Singapore, have felt the impact of Covid-19 heavily. TODAY’s Voices section features testimonials from small business owners and managers about the highs and lows of running a business during the pandemic.

In this latest episode, Mr. Chong Leong Thye, 70, a longtime owner of a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Hougang, recounts how business suffered when movement restrictions turned the heart of the country into a ghost town. . Venturing into e-commerce and expanding the store’s product line has helped grow its customer base.

When people think of shopping, a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) store in the heart of town might not come to mind.

But for nearly 50 years, my wife and I have dedicated our lives to running our business in Hougang. We’ve seen many of our long-time customers grow up and start their own families alongside us.

We’ve had our fair share of ups and downs over the decades, but nothing could have prepared us for Covid-19.

Heartland was like a ghost town during circuit breaker times in 2020. No one came to us to buy their essentials.

The drastic drop in daily sales hurt our cash flow, which fell nearly 30% when our store was closed for two months during this period.

More urgently, we had a count of stacked inventory, and perishables like formula and medications that would soon reach their expiration date. It was a very stressful time for us, and we had so much uncertainty about how to sustain our business.

We knew from our daughter and son-in-law that consumer behavior was changing, with younger customers preferring to shop online. But after relying on brick-and-mortar retail for so long, we didn’t know where to start.

Fortunately, during the launch of Enterprise Singapore’s Heartlands Go Digital initiative in October 2020, a business advisor from SME [email protected] contacted us to inquire about e-commerce.

He told us about the benefits of channels like Shopee and the growing demand for electronic payments as customers worried about the transmission of Covid-19 through cash.

With her support, we became a Shopee seller and expanded our product line to include formula and other baby products, in addition to our TCM products. Our crisis became our opportunity, and we’ve had over 1,500 transactions on Shopee alone since June 2021.

Not only were we able to reach younger customers in our neighborhood, but we also expanded our audience across the island.

We are grateful that the Covid-19 situation in Singapore has improved now and have seen more customers return to shop at our physical outlet.

At the same time, we still see value in maintaining our Shopee platform to reach new customers. We also continue to accept PayNow in our store to keep prices competitive and attract more people.

However, a challenge we still face today is the labor shortage.

Currently, it is difficult for my daughter and son-in-law to process e-commerce orders at night while coping with their day jobs. We hope to get help from the Infocomm Media Development Authority to further consolidate our operations and scale the growth of our digital business.

Three years ago, I never imagined that my TCM store would one day be online or that I would now be accepting electronic payments. It just goes to show how we should always be open to change, be ready to ask for help, and be ready to transform when the time is right.


Mr. Chong Leong Thye, 70, is the owner of Han Seng Thye Medical Products Trading. He and his wife have run the Hougang Central store since 1974.