I received a request and decided to follow up on it. There have been many articles that touch on firms developing technologies to disrupt existing business but not too many portraying the views of the incumbents being disrupted. As such, I took the liberty to speak to business owners from 4 industries that are being disrupted or susceptible to disruption. These include a laundry shop, a spectacles shop and a photography shop. Shops like these used to be prevalent in most neighbourhood areas in Singapore but have disappeared due to various reasons. Time for me to find out more.
The first was Uncle Chew, who has been operating his laundry shop for over 10 years. A sprightly fellow, he still does most of the work along with his wife. They provide basic laundry and dry cleaning services. His business took a hit when stores offering 24 hour laundry services through machines came along. He shared that almost 50% of his business for basic laundry (i.e. washing of clothes) was lost but he managed to retain the dry cleaning services. However, he fears that should there be a compact machine to undertake dry cleaning services, he could be in trouble. The coin laundry machines offer customers a round a clock service that he can’t though he is admanent that he provides pressing and ironing services which differentiate him from these human less machines. Also he feels that they target more of the lower end market and don’t provide the level of service that come along with his shop. His response to the future? “I’m already in my fifties, if cannot compete then I will retire” is his answer. I thanked him for his time and retrieve my dry cleaning from his shop.
The second was a spectacles shop. These guys have been around since I have been a kid and though my first pair of glasses were made over here, even I took my business elsewhere in the recent years. With entrants like Owndays to Jins (not in Singapore currently though) and other shops promising me my glasses in 30 min, we are spoiled for choice. I even tried out the options from Warby Parker. Why? Designs were newer and I always hated the designer labels at the side of my glasses anyhow. Further more, the sheer speed of delivery made it different. So I trudged in the shop and greeted Mr Tan very sheepishly. He greeted me warmly as always. He was never one who jumped straight into business and when he learned of my “assignment” was happy to oblige. “Yes business is not as good as before. Younger people now like nicer designs and trendy glasses. So the majority of my customers are now all old regulars.” He pointed to across the shop to highlight his point. “These people have supported me for many years and always like my service. Most of the new shops don’t even measure the distance from eye, sometimes, the glasses too close will spoil your eyes. People only think of how it looks on your face. Lens quality also not very good. Use for a while then have to throw. But what to do, people want fast fast, quick quick. Then when you don’t like it or spoil then throw away and buy a new one. ” I asked him what he intends to do to compete. He shrugged his shoulders and said that he would run his shop as Long as he could (he was approaching 65 years old) before calling it a day. “I have made it quick for the customers to collect their spectacles just like owndays. But people like new designs so I try to get more frames from china. Cheaper also. If I can pay my staff then ok. If not then maybe I just rent out my space and retire la.” Spoken in the typical Singaporean Singlish.
Finally, I had some time to pop over to my favourite photo shop. Another establishment that has been there for eons. I have developed my photographs for my passport, family and friends. Mr Wong has been operating the outlet for 12 years. He shared that Kodak’s downfall gave him a headache. He kept up with the times and bought machines that allowed people who still wanted to develop photos to do it easily. “I even put in an app so that people can transfer the files faster.” But actual physical photo developing are going down. “I do a lot of work for businesses now who want hard copy photos for records. Some people still like the feel of photographs.” I asked him about whether the recent interest in high end photography helped and whether he has changed his business to focus on selling cameras. “It is a fad. Many buy high end cameras to take good shots but at the end, the hand phone cameras are quite good. Easy to send up to Facebook and Instagram.” He pulled out his phone and shared with me his shots on facebook. “If you can’t beat them then join them.” He laughed. “Once led screens become cheaper, I think that most will switch to it. Still too expensive now even an iPad. Too small to show nice pictures well.” So what’s on the horizon for him? “Aiyah, one day at a time. Maybe our shops can help to digitize books.” There you have it. A traditional shop that thinks ahead.
In summary, it’s not pleasant being disrupted. You probably can see it coming. And what’s more, you probably have time to react. But the question is what will you do if you were in their shoes. Choose to bide time before growing in the towel, embrace the change and join them or find another niche to have that second wave. If you are looking at the latter, pop me a mail. Love to see if I can help brainstorm a couple ideas. There is always a need however small it may be. It’s just about finding the right one to target.
Have a good weekend.
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