RETAIL sales excluding motor vehicles inched up just 0.6 per cent in December, but consumers aren't necessarily holding back for the Chinese New Year (CNY).
Office drones are packing their bags for long trips and the F&B sector may be going "Huat!" as revellers flock to reunion dinners and feasts - some in the comfort of their homes.
They are opting to have their treasure pots and yu sheng delivered to be eaten outside the restaurants that prepare them, delivery services told The Business Times.
Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee started offering delivery this year for items like abalone Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, for S$1,188, and shark's fin chicken soup, for S$688. Each serves 10 and comes with a roasted suckling pig, handmade abalone XO sauce and a free pot.
"We have people ordering from us for three days straight for their parties," said general manager Jasmine Lee.
Demand for Paradise Group's delivery set menus and yu sheng has increased 20 per cent for the past few years.
Lin Sifang, marketing communications manager, said: "It offers customers the convenience of having reunion meals at home without complicated and tiring preparations."
Hua Ting Restaurant has also seen more takeaways for corporate gifts and reunion dinners for items like their tea-cured fresh salmon "Lo Hei" with passionfruit sauce.
Delivery app foodpanda is ramping up its fleet by 50 per cent in anticipation of a 50 per cent increase in orders compared to a normal weekend. It is lowering its S$3 delivery fee to S$1.88 and is the exclusive vendor for Din Tai Fung for this holiday.
Uber Eats and some partner restaurants are coming up with special menus; RedMart's smoked salmon and vegetarian yu sheng, retailing at S$18.80 and S$16.80, have seen sales this year grow 80 per cent; but Deliveroo expects business as usual.
The increased demand from takeaways and deliveries has placed pressure on manpower needs.
Paradise's Ms Lin said hiring has increased by 10 to 15 per cent compared to last year, but the "price adjustment is very minimal" - for example, the 12-person portion for yu sheng is S$62.80 this year, up from S$59.80 last year.
Teochew Huat Kee, which delivers using courier Lalamove, said they have had to hire more staff and raise kitchen salaries.
foodpanda is giving its riders an extra $1 per hour this festive season, with an additional increment of $1 per order. UberEats will use its Boost system to reward delivery partners who deliver in high-demand areas.
Restaurants are also reporting high demand for CNY Eve dinners.
Huat Kee, which was 95 per cent full last year, is fully booked this year; Hua Ting, usually fully booked on the eve, has a waitlist this year; Tung Lok's restaurants are at least 95 per cent booked; and Hai Tien Lo is fully booked for its first seating with "limited seating" for the second.
For the travel industry, the timing of this festive season - with a longer window after the December holidays, the long weekend and proximity to Valentine's Day - has been a gift.
Bookings have risen 15 per cent for Dynasty Travel compared to last year's festive period in January, said Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications. "Travellers only need to apply three or four days' leave to enjoy seven to 10 days of holiday, thus we see more mid- to long- haul holidays to Japan and Europe."
Bookings at Chan Brothers have increased 10 per cent, said marketing communications executive Justine Koh. Top destinations include Europe, China, Japan, Taiwan and Australia. Cruises in South-east Asia are also hot, with an increase of 30 per cent in bookings year on year. "Cruises are popular for CNY as they offer opportunity for multi-generation families to travel together with the option of reunion dinners."
But the incoming Year of the Dog has not been so favourable for gift companies. "There has been a slight dip in hamper sales this year for orders up to this point," said Joaquim Florist and Gifts managing director Kenneth Chee.
Noel Gifts International's senior marketing executive Chantel Seet said the company hopes for "more than zero digit sales growth" for this season. "We suspect the soft economy is still impacting on customers' budget hence some are buying less."
FarEastFlora.com is expecting a decline in volumes of 10 to 15 per cent. While corporate customers, which make up 70 per cent of their orders, have been picking mid-to-high-range hampers, personal customers buying CNY gifts may be affected by the close proximity of Valentine's Day.
"Based on the past three years' trends, sales from personal customers will drop slightly when both festive periods are in the same month or back to back," said Chris Kok, marketing communications manager.
A Better Florist, which launched in 2015, has seen demand for gift hampers increase 85 per cent this year.
"Large corporations that we've always worked with have either reduced the average cost of the hampers they are ordering for CNY, or the total volume," said business development manager Sam Blackett. But an increase in orders from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and personal orders has helped make up for the shortfall.