FairPrice turns 50: Seven facts about the supermarket chain
Here are seven facts you may not know about FairPrice:
1. FairPrice and Sheng Siong share the same labour roots
In 1978, then MP and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) president Phey Yew Kok invested $17,000 of unapproved union funds to set up Savewell, previously known as Forward Supermarket.
After being charged with misappropriating the money, he went on the run. The supermarket chain soon became neck-deep in debt.
Savewell’s managing director Aw Chwee Seng turned to a young man who ran the pork counter at the Savewell store in Ang Mo Kio, offering to sell the outlet to him for $20,000.
The 24-year-old pig farmer turned butcher bought the store, and Savewell became Sheng Siong. Mr Lim Hock Chee, now 62, went on to build a grocery empire.
2. Spurned by glitzy shopping centres in the 1990s
FairPrice wanted to operate in glitzy shopping centres in the 1990s, but was not welcomed because of its heartland image and working-class customers.
After being spurned repeatedly, it entered into property development with CapitaLand, then known as DBS Land, to build Tampines Mall and became its anchor tenant. Today, it is the supermarket that every mall developer hopes to have.
3. Failed concepts
FairPrice diversified into other concepts, but was not always successful.
Liberty Market, with its array of American products, opened in Plaza Singapura in 1998 and Jurong Point in 2000. The American appeal soon wore off, with the Jurong Point outlet closing in 2002 and the Plaza Singapura outlet in 2003.
However, FairPrice rolled out FairPrice Xtra hypermarket in 2006 and FairPrice Finest in 2007 to market success.
4. Venturing overseas
The domestic heavyweight suffered botched ventures in China, Malaysia and Myanmar. It subsequently entered Vietnam in 2013, where it now has four hypermarkets, under the name Co.opXtra, in Ho Chi Minh City. Its partner Saigon Co.op is also a cooperative sharing a similar structure and social mission.
FairPrice is eyeing new markets but hints it may do things its own way – such as by marketing its fast-growing range of house brands abroad.
5. Head-to-head with Carrefour
It toppled Carrefour after the global giant entered Singapore in 1997. Not only did FairPrice set up stores in Plaza Singapura and Marina Square near Carrefour’s Suntec City outlet, it also blocked Carrefour’s entry into the heartland by putting in a bid for the same Hougang Point spot Carrefour wanted.
These moves paved the way for the French giant’s exit in 2012.
6. Spreading Cheers
It originally wanted to launch its Cheers convenience stores behind the secure fences of army camps, but the maiden store eventually opened in 1998 at Nanyang Polytechnic.
Mega convenience store chain 7-Eleven had already occupied strategic places around Singapore, but FairPrice struck oil when it partnered petroleum titan ExxonMobil. In 2005, FairPrice took over the retail function of all of ExxonMobil’s 77 petrol stations. Within 18 months, all stores at these stations turned into either Cheers or another store format called FairPrice Xpress – a hybrid version of a convenience store and a mini grocery mart.
7. 12 cents for a plastic bag in 1974
It was the first supermarket to charge shoppers for plastic bags.
Then known as NTUC Welcome, the fledgling retailer tried to charge shoppers 12 cents per plastic bag in 1974 to keep costs down. However, it scrapped the move in less than two weeks after vehement protests from shoppers.
In 2019, its No Plastic Bag initiative was introduced at selected supermarkets and convenience stores, which charged customers between 10 cents and 20 cents for plastic bags per transaction.
In 2022, the initiative was implemented across all 178 Cheers and Fairprice Xpress convenience stores and continued in the 11 selected FairPrice supermarkets, presaging the mandatory disposable carrier bag charge that kicked in on July 3.