Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co., run by third-generation owner Rodney Goh, is a provision shop that has stood the test of time in the charming, picturesque neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru. To keep up with the diverse demographic of the neighbourhood, Rodney is always ready to understand his customers’ changing demands and to meet their expectations. He shares with us the importance of adapting to change, while being mindful to the needs of his older customer base.

Many would agree that the estate of Tiong Bahru is a prime example of a Singaporean neighbourhood that has successfully found a balance between retaining the old and welcoming the new. We’re talking about white-haired grandmothers carting their fresh produce in market trolleys alongside camera-wielding tourists hoping to capture the old-school nostalgia of the neighbourhood. That, and their coexistence with new-fangled cafes right next door to traditional coffeeshops serving up local fare crafted from age-old recipes.

The shop’s original signboard, tucked away at the back of the provision shop. Photo by FJ Sai

Just one step into provision shop Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co., nestled in the heart of Tiong Bahru, and you will see the estate’s balance of new and old in full effect. Amongst the endless variety of traditional spices, dried goods, and household knick-knacks like feather dusters and wooden clothes pegs are neat displays of jars of orange marmalade, cans of diced tomatoes and bottles of Worcestershire sauce and extra-virgin olive oil. Not the kinds of condiments that make up the culinary arsenals of our local grandmothers, that’s for sure.

Rodney Goh, 62, explained that he had started stocking these foreign ingredients and condiments to cater to the increase of international residents in the area. This became necessary, especially in recent years, as expatriates now make up the bulk of his customers.

“Nowadays, Singaporean youngsters seldom eat at home,” Rodney commented. “After work, they’ll go to the hawker centre or the mall, have their meal and then go home.”

For the foreigners who live here, however, their culinary stories differ. According to Rodney, “They have a circle of foreigner friends, and would invite each other to their homes to try their local cuisine. So if they’re from France, they’ll cook French cuisine. If they’re from Italy, they’ll cook Italian meals for their friends.”

“That’s why we can sell all this stuff,” Rodney said as he gestured to the newer ingredients on the shelves.

Taking the idea of catering to his foreign customers a step further, Rodney considered the circumstances of domestic helpers who frequent his shop on behalf of their employers. To help them feel more at home, Rodney stocks various Filipino titbits and goodies, so that when the domestic helpers come to buy kitchenware and household goods, they can also purchase a little something that will remind them of their hometown or their families.

As Rodney introduced the newer products to us, he revealed that while there was an increase in expatriates in the neighbourhood, the demographic of the newer residents had also shifted.

“About 10 years ago, we used to stock a lot of Chinese goods like mala [spicy and numbing] sauce and so on,” said Rodney, recalling a time when the neighbourhood had more residents from China. “But now we don’t carry them anymore because the demographic has changed. We get a lot more European customers now.”

It is not uncommon to see ‘new’ products sitting amidst ‘older’ products such as the agar-agar powder in the shop. Photo by FJ Sai

However, while Rodney has his new customers’ best interests at heart, he has not completely forgotten his older, local customer base – the people who have been patronising Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co. since Rodney’s father began running it in the 1940s. Rodney takes pride in delivering personalised service to his regulars.

“You need to have that personal service, then they will come back,” explained Rodney. “We do our best to remember the preferred brands of our customers, whether it’s for toilet paper, soap powder or rice.” With a good handle on their likes, Rodney often reminds them about items they might have forgotten to get. “Because we remember these things, customers like to come back to us,” he added.

Rodney even goes the extra mile by providing delivery services for some of his older customers who might be too frail to visit the store.

“To survive in this business, you have to do delivery, because all the bigger supermarkets have this service too,” stated Rodney. “It’s tougher if you depend only on walk-ins. For walk-ins, because we only have two hands, customers can only carry a limited amount of goods. With delivery, customers can buy more.”

While bigger supermarkets have online catalogues, which customers can easily browse through and choose what they want, Rodney explained that customers who requested for deliveries are usually older, at 60 or even 70 years old. As such, the products that they ask for are usually things that they have been using for a long time – products that Rodney definitely stocks.

“Year in, year out, once customers use a particular brand and continue to do so, they won’t change,” Rodney observed.

Rodney in his store. Photo by FJ Sai

Rodney believes that mom-and-pop shops like Pin Pin Piau Kay & Co. are dying a slow death. He cited an example: “Remember those mama shops along the corridors, by the walls? These days, you don’t find them anymore because provision shops have taken over their business. One day, online supermarkets will take over ours.”

Even in the face of adversity, Rodney’s enterprising spirit may yet help the family business survive despite the odds. It is an effort that should be applauded and appreciated by all who have had the opportunity to visit this little provision shop in Tiong Bahru.

Written by: FJ Sai

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