There’s more to shopping than meets the eye

Contrary to the frivolous attitudes often associated with shopping, it is in fact a fun and constructive activity to better understand a nation and its citizens. Of course, one has to do it sensibly and not bleed the pocket to satisfy a lust for luxury and risk becoming a shopaholic. Shopping is a way to open a window to what’s going on around you… be it at the boutique, department store or the supermarket. You get a glimpse of the many options in how to dress up for different occasions, what are popular colours, what’s in and out of fashion, and what are the offerings on the shelves from baby food, kitchen ware, to fresh food. It offers a good insight into society and the aspirations of the community. If nothing else, these popular shopping destinations are located in well-populated areas, providing ample opportunity for people-watching.

Hong Kong
Some Singaporeans would gladly make a short trip to Hong Kong over a weekend just to shop, and that’s because Hong Kong has lots to offer at affordable prices, from daily necessities to electronics to clothes. Better still, the strong Singapore dollar makes prices a real bargain. Anytime is a good time to shop in Hong Kong, though if you’re looking for seasonal wear, you’d want to go at the end of said season to grab the best deals. A bonus is the shops don’t close till as late as 11pm in some areas. Watch the queue at the branded boutiques. See how the mainland Chinese shop as though there’s no tomorrow.

Popular shopping districts include Central, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, Nathanb Road and Mongkok. At the open air Ladies Market, you can test your skills in negotiation as you pick your bargains. Watch how the locals do the trick. The secret, it seems, is if you speak Cantonese you get the best price; you pay a little more if you speak English, but if you speak to the stall holders in Mandarin then be prepared to pay a premium for the Chinese shoppers are known to be big spenders.

Paris, France
Paris, the Fashion Capital of the world, is the place to be if you’re a fan of trending fashion attire from top-notch high-end designers. Don’t be intimidated by the reputation Paris has for extravagance. During sales periods, stores will clear out items from previous seasons, and prices will be slashed. But don’t try to bargain as it is not their style.

Sale seasons are at the end of June and beginning of January, usually spanning around six weeks. The word “soldes” is French for sale, and you will see it plastered all over the shop windows. From shoes, bags to dresses and clothes, perfumes, cosmetics for both sexes, there’s no lack of variety; only problem is sometimes their sizes may not fit the smaller built Asians.

Recommended shopping districts include Faubourg Saint-Honoré for high-end fashion and cosmetics, Boulevard Haussmann which is the Paris Department Stores District, The Marias for jewellery, antiques and fine art, Avenue Montaigne and Avenue des Champs-Elysées for designer shopping and global chains, and Paris Flea Markets for antiques, vintage clothes and unique souvenirs for a bargain. Sometimes the busy streets look more like a runway as the bevy of chic Parisienne ladies in their fashionable attire make their rounds.

London, United Kingdom
For some shoppers a stopover in London is a must if they’re on a shopping trip to Europe. The City of London has a wide variety to offer, from books to luxury fashion to bargain items, crafts and antiques. Summer is probably the best time to shop here, and you will see tourists of many different nationalities from Middle East to Asia descend on London.

Oxford Street is the heart of London shopping with more than 300 shops, designer outlets and landmark stores. Other renowned shopping districts include Regent Street and Oxford Street for a variety of fashion, Bond Street and Mayfair for the most extravagant brands. Carnaby Street used to be very popular, but it has now adopted a more tranquil front as home to independent boutiques and heritage brands.

For more unusual crafts and fashion, try Notting Hill for its wide variety of small shops selling vintage clothing, rare antiques, quirky gifts and books, and Camden Town, where you can find open-air markets and retail outlets offering crafts, books, vintage and alternative clothing and accessories and more.

Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo is notorious for high living standards. Yet there are many places you can buy necessities, fashion and fun goods for low prices, such as the numerous 100 yen shops, Don Quijote and Daiso outlets around the city. The Japanese are fond of recycling, and Daikokuya, Don Quijote and Ragtag are examples of chain stores that sell quality second-hand designer items like Louis Vuitton and Chanel for discounted prices. If you’re an anime fan, you can find lots of second-hand collectibles at significantly lowered prices in the anime districts of Akihabara and Ikebukuro.

The best times to shop are during the winter sales from late December through mid January and Summer sales from late June through July, where prices will be heavily slashed. During the New Year, stores sell Lucky Packs or Happy Packs (Fukubukuro) which are filled with random contents from the store, usually with the total worth amounting to much more than the cost of buying the pack. There are lucky bags for almost everything including clothes, accessories, facial products, electronics, and candy. As many of these packs are limited, popular brands will see long lines of customers camping outside the malls where they are located at the wee hours of the New Year.

Famous shopping districts in Tokyo include Ginza and Omotesando for high-end shopping, Shinjuku for department stores and shopping malls, Harajuku for alternative, youthful quirky fashion and Akihabara for electronics.

New York, USA
Almost every year, Black Friday makes the news for insane crowds and violence. The most well-known national sales event in the United States, it falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day in the US, and is considered the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Post-Christmas sales offer plenty of bargains too as retailers try to clear their stock.

New York boasts some of the world’s most famous malls and departmental stores including Barneys, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and popular discount department store Century 21. For shopping districts, try the Financial District/New York Stock Exchange zone for high fashion, Soho with its cobblestoned streets, loft-like spaces and avant-garde stores, and Union Square, the hottest zone in the city for shopping, eating and hanging out. For some serious bargain hunting, head to Central Valley, which is home to Woodbury Commons Premium Outlets with 220 stores of top luxury brands. So renowned it is that some customers around the globe fly in just to shop there! Be prepared to plough through the crowd and to join the queues at the cashier.

Bangkok, Thailand
Unlike the aforementioned shopping destinations, Bangkok is more well-known for its floating markets and bazaars offering a more exotic, relaxed and friendly atmosphere. It is a shopping paradise for those on a budget.

The Damnoen Saduak floating market is the most popular but some have complained that it has become too touristy, which naturally attracts scammers. Instead, try Amphawa Floating Market, the second most popular floating market which remains authentic, and sells souvenirs as well as local snacks and sweets. It is not exactly inside Bangkok (none of the floating markets actually are) but you can hop on a tour from Bangkok.

Bazaars offer excellent bargains, opportunities to sample food you don’t usually find in Thai restaurants as well as alleys of shops selling a generous variety of goods from one-off fashion pieces to agricultural produce. Chatuchak Weekend Market is the largest with a large central area that branches out into many alleys. Night markets like the Khlong Thom Market, Khlong Lod Night Market and Patpong Night Market offer additional options after dark when most of the malls are closed.

For those who favour conventional shopping in the malls with designer products, Bangkok is home to a few large ones including CentralWorld, Siam Paragon, MBK Shopping Centre and Terminal 21. The Amazing Thailand Grand Sale is an annual two-month long sales season between June to August which many shopping malls and small businesses will participate in. Discounts go up to 70%.

– This article first appeared in a lifestyle magazine.

Opportunities to grow even after 14 years

If you are a long time resident of Toa Payoh Central, you have likely seen his face. You may even know his name or have spoken to him. As Property Manager of the Toa Payoh Central Division, Mr Zulkiflee Bin Ismail, 37, spends most of his time mapping out the work for the six Property Officers (PO) and attending to issues that require his intervention.

For Zulkiflee, he started out as PO 14 years ago in 1999. He has spent many years working on the estate, forging friendships with residents. Even today as he walks around the estate to carry out the spot check for maintenance and technical issues, he is greeted heartily by the residents at the void deck.

Inside his office, the affable man cheerfully recounts how some friendly residents would stop him for a chat or even phone him to ask about his day. “Of course, many of them tend to end the conversation by telling me about some estate issue, albeit in a pleasant manner,” he laughed.

That sense of satisfaction from being relied on by residents, along with various factors, has encouraged him to stay in the same job for more than a decade. Zulkiflee had not even set his mind on Facility Management when he studied for his Diploma in Architectural Technology.

He joined the Town Council with zero knowledge about property management, gradually learning the ropes from his peers and the management, who provided him ample learning opportunities. Throughout his career, he has continually enrolled in courses touching on a wide-range of subjects including technical know-how, inter-personal relationships, communication and management.

Having ascended the career ladder with three promotions under his belt; Property Executive in 2001, Assistant Property Manager in 2007 and now Property Manager in 2010, Zulkiflee’s responsibilities have increased significantly, but he still fi nds that he is able to count on his higher-ups for support and direction.

He described his work environment as a positive and encouraging one. “Simply put, they don’t leave me hanging when I experience difficulties in the course of my work,” said Zulkiflee.

His daily work, often a challenging and dynamic affair, remains a constant learning experience and eye-opener. Aside from working closely with his POs, he has to personally solve problems with residents, contractors and external agencies like HDB when there are thorny issues that require his attention.

Recalling a particularly memorable project two years back, when he had just become Property Manager for the Toa Payoh Central division, he said it was a two-year long Neighbourhood Renewal Programme for the whole Toa Payoh Central. This proved to be an uphill battle, considering that many shops and pedestrians were affected.

One of the most diffi cult upgrading works was the retiling of the whole pedestrian mall with anti-slip tiles for aesthetic and safety purposes. Concerned about losing their income, the shop owners objected. They only relented, although grudgingly, only after many long drawn meetings. But efforts on all sides paid off as businesses were improved as more customers were attracted by the refurbished shop fronts.

Indeed, the Bishan Town Council takes pride in improving the environment of residents in their respective estates, including commercial entities.

“The problem is, residents think the Town Council handles everything under the sun,” Zulkiflee mused. He explained how residents would submit inquiries and complaints about problems that are not related to property management, like lack of bus services, security problems such as illegal gatherings at the void deck and installation of CCTV, and neighbour disputes. To set the record straight, these are managed by Land Transport Authority, Neighbourhood Police Post, and Community Mediation Centre respectively.

“Obviously, we can’t turn them away. Regardless of the notices we provide about useful phone numbers, residents still consider ours the easiest number to call, so we try to help them by referring them to the relevant bodies,” he said. Unfortunately, this leads to the notion that the Town Council doesn’t do anything, which is of course a gross misunderstanding.

Apart from his daily work, Zulkiflee is also needed at the monthly CCC meetings with grassroots members and external agencies, MPs’ door-to-door visits, events and corporate dinners, where issues about property management are usually brought up or discussed. Much of this is performed outside
his working hours, which are typically 8.30 am to 6 pm on weekdays, and alternate Saturdays.

With so much on his plate, it is almost a miracle that he is able to squeeze in time to do a part-time degree at UniSIM (or SIM University) on Facilities Management. A variety of work benefits have helped him accomplish this, including exam and study leave, and permission to leave early on certain days to attend his evening classes.

For all its demands, the job offers great flexibility; the superiors don’t believe in micro-management, which affords Zulkiflee freedom to perfect his style of management. He also gets access to Flexi-benefits, a system whereby employees are allotted a certain amount of monetary allowance which can be spent on personal needs, including leisure and relaxation to help an employee to de-stress.

Zulkifl ee’s parents and younger brother are supportive of his long-lasting passion for his job. On his days off, he enjoys spending time with his family, shopping, exercising and catching up on sleep. These days, much of his free time is invested on school assignments.

“One of the greatest perks is that you get to learn many things on the job, and these are things that will stick with you for the rest of your life,” quips the man with a visible thirst for self-improvement.

– This article first appeared in a Town Council newsletter as part of a recruitment advertorial.