There’s much to like about Singapore. Lovely climate, interesting juxtaposition of colonial history and the ultramodern, and a political system that, whilst wildly different from western democracy, appears to be effective. It’s also a wonderful place to indulge the taste buds, with a cuisine that fuses Indian, Chinese and Malay.
I was staying with some expat friends, who teach at one of the international schools. Unsurprisingly, they love the Singaporean lifestyle, with the only downside to the place being its size. Island fever has them popping over to the Malay Peninsula or elsewhere in south east Asia on a fairly regular basis.
It was our main sight-seeing day. We’d roamed the streets of both Little India and Chinatown, drinking in the sights and smells – colourful 19th century shops and houses that looked down upon the bustle beneath them with gentle disregard. An ice-cold mango lassi provided welcome refreshment in a little café which could have been transplanted from Mumbai.
People are very proud to call themselves Singaporean and whilst it is possible to experience distinct foreign cultures on the island, there are also aspects that are unique. This is probably best exemplified in the food, where you will find inimitable dishes. My friends wanted to show me what this really meant and so our lunch stop was Lau Pa Sat (literally “old market”), also known as the hawker centre.
Lau Pa Sat has a rich and somewhat chequered history, stretching back to the 1820s. Due to land reclamation and reuse, the old market has changed location several times. The current structure still has the cast iron beams that were forged in Scotland and shipped over in 1894. These beams had been in storage for many years before forming the octagonal skeleton for the current building which was erected in the late 1980s.
It now houses a food court containing a plethora of outlets, with a large seating area in the centre. Planted slap bang in the centre of the skyscrapers of the financial district, Lau Pa Sat is the feeding trough for city workers Monday to Friday. We were there on a Saturday and the place reminded me of London’s Leadenhall market at the weekend. Listen hard enough and you can hear the echoes of the mid-week bustle.
All manner of Singaporean food is here, as well as favourites from around the world. The sweet cinnamon scent of fried carrot cake vies with fragrant chilli crab for your lunchtime Sing dollars. But how do you choose when there are over 60 outlets and no overlap? This conundrum got The Commercial Traveller thinking – especially when confronted with the Pig’s Organ Soup outlet.
Now maybe pig’s organ soup is the most popular lunch item on sale. I don’t know and to be honest, I didn’t try it. But let’s assume it’s an acquired taste. How do you compete for attention when you are a niche player? Well, there a number of options. You can let people revel in very fact that they are part of a select group of customers that swears by your product. Make a ‘club’ out of it. Marmite, for instance, makes a virtue of the fact that some people will hate their product, leaving the ‘lovers’ by default in a ‘club’.
Another option is to use promotional devices to get people to try it. On the basis that a portion of the population will like your product, you can build a market. The Commercial Traveller has many times been offered the likes of soya milk yoghurts or a new brand of shampoo at London rail terminals. This is the ‘try it, you might like it!’ approach.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that there a lot of advantages for a small business in operating in a niche market:
- You don’t have to spread yourself too thinly.
- It’s easier to become an expert and well known.
- Being unique means less competition.
- Marketing becomes easier.
- More repeat business.
The owners of the pig’s organ soup concession recognise that they don’t need to feed the 2,500 people that can fit into Lau Pa Sat at any one time. They just need to sell the 50 or so portions over a lunchtime that gives them a decent living. And I suspect they find that quite easy.
Me? I’ll stick to the fried carrot cake.