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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

CNY bargain hunters head to Woodlands industrial site

Food wholesalers there see bustling business in run-up to festivities.
The Straits Times - February 8, 2013
By: Kezia Toh and Janice Tai
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CNY bargain hunters head to Woodlands industrial site Bargain hunters shopping for their Chinese New Year goodies at Fragrance Foodstuff in Woodlands Terrace. -- ST PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN

DURING other times of the year, security guard Zackzulkr, 24, watches workers from nearby manufacturing firms stream past the quiet industrial estate in Woodlands on their way to work.

But in the run-up to Chinese New Year, she sees them wade past bargain hunters thronging wholesalers selling discounted seafood, barbecued meat and other foodstuff, which can be about 20 per cent cheaper than those sold at the supermarkets.

The lane turns into a makeshift shopping hot spot for bargain hunters two weeks before Chinese New Year - but not without problems - said Ms Zackzulkr, who has been working in the area for the past three years.

"There, you see," she gestures, as a driver blares his horn impatiently.

"During this period, this stretch is always jammed with cars at lunchtime, and workers taking their companies' lorries cannot get through," she said.

Another bugbear: Most bargain hunters park temporarily at the gates, leading to traffic snarls during the festive shopping season.

But the cash register is ringing merrily for the more than 10 wholesalers lining the stretch along Woodlands Terrace, which faces a more sedate row of manufacturing firms, separated by a small road.

The industrial cluster is about 20 minutes away from Sembawang MRT, with just one bus service plying the area.

At frozen food retailer CS Tay Foods, business spikes by almost 60 per cent during this period, especially on weekends, said general manager Lilian Ho, 42.

The company, which sells ready-to-eat processed food such as seaweed chicken, has been at the Woodlands site since 1996. While it used to advertise, it does not do so any more as "it has become a norm for families to come", she said.

Company employees double as traffic wardens during the festive period and delivery trucks are parked further away so as not to add to the congestion, said Ms Ho.

The area even plays host to one-day tour groups from community clubs and organisations such as the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), which charter buses to bring shoppers to the area.

"Apart from the convenience of getting a good variety of food items at reasonable prices for the new year, the trip also encourages bonding among our members and the public," said a YWCA spokesman.

But the traffic bottleneck - which is "just choked" - is good for business, said Mr Martin Fassler, owner of wholesaler Fassler Gourmet.

Crowds throng his 16-year-old factory space - including an ice room packed floor to ceiling with frozen seafood such as scallops, white clams and jellyfish - two weeks before Chinese New Year, he said.

The demand for fresh fish for yusheng - a tossed raw fish salad - rises as much as tenfold, said Mr Fassler, 52.

He has extended his closing time from 5pm to 7pm on some evenings and pays his staff overtime, while his wife and brothers chip in.

To cope with the influx of shoppers, the wholesalers also put in place interim measures and facilities.

For example, portable toilets line a grass patch outside the warehouse of Fragrance Foodstuff, which sells barbecued meat.

Initially, walk-in patrons were mainly from the nearby estates. But as the word got around, customers from as far as Boon Lay and Choa Chu Kang made a beeline for the industrial estate for their yearly dose of festive goodies.

For the past four years, visiting the wholesalers has been a yearly event for Mr Daniel Wong.

The 30-year-old, who runs his own IT business, drove for 40 minutes from his home in Boon Lay to the Woodlands site for fresh salmon and scallops - more than 10 per cent cheaper than those sold at the supermarkets, he said.

Residents from the nearby estates have also been flocking to the area on buses and bicycles.

Said housewife Wang Miao Ling, 43, who cycled to the factories with three other neighbours from the neighbouring blocks yesterday: "It is dangerous as there are lots of cars here, so we try to be extra careful by cycling along the footpaths."

They left with aluminium cooler bags filled with frozen seafood affixed at the back of their bicycles.

Financial advisor Amanda Seet, 36, has been splashing out $300 to $400 there for her haul of scallops and prawns every Chinese New Year.

"I used to get stuck in the jam for 20 minutes and the queues here can stretch to one hour," said Ms Seet, who decided to beat the weekend crowd this year by doing her shopping in the late afternoon yesterday.

Woodlands attracts larger crowds compared to wholesalers in other industrial estates such as Pandan Loop and Tuas, said Madam Soon W., 33, who did her shopping in all three areas in the past few weeks.

"The centres here are clustered along a small lane, so it is convenient for shoppers to get their barbecued pork and seafood all at one go, while those elsewhere are more scattered."

And despite the spike of bargain hunters, the area's residents are unruffled.

Housewife May Ho, 46, said: "It gets crowded only this time of the year, and that's all right - I go shopping there too and squeezing with the crowd is part of the fun."


Eat smart this Chinese New Year