8. FairPrice’s Foreign Forays

Photo: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, FairPrice ventured overseas, setting up supermarkets in Malaysia, Myanmar (pictured) and China. Source: Courtesy of Tey Lian Lee

As the largest supermarket operator in Singapore, FairPrice was ready to make its first foray overseas in the 1990s – at a time when the government was also encouraging companies to create the country’s “external wing.” Addressing FairPrice staff at its 1994 dinner and dance, Mr Lim Boon Heng, NTUC Secretary-General then, cheered the milestone. “FairPrice has come of age,” he said with pride. There were two reasons for venturing overseas. First, FairPrice’s domestic market share had grown to a point where further economies of scale would be hard to achieve. It needed a regional base. Second, having global operations would diversify its procurement of food sources. But it turned out to be a trying time.

FairPrice partnered Hong Leong Group in 1994 to open seven stores in Kuala Lumpur. But the journey ended two years later, due to stiff competition and the inability to secure good locations, and FairPrice lost about $4 million. Around the same time, it also closed its only store in Yangon, Myanmar. The joint venture with Myanmar Economic Holdings had targeted 20 stores, but political upheavals led its import licence to be cancelled soon after entering the market.

FairPrice tried again in 2003, entering China with Taiwanese and Chinese partners. But the business was plagued by cash flow woes due to over-expansion by its Taiwanese partner and pilferage. It ended in 2005, after racking up nearly $80 million in debts and more than $40 million in losses. This derailed expansion efforts for close to a decade but yielded valuable lessons.

These proved handy when the first store of FairPrice’s Vietnamese foray opened in May 2013. Co.opXtra in Ho Chi Minh City offered close to 50,000 types of products, including FairPrice housebrand items. As of 2023, there are four stores in Ho Chi Minh City.

Since its humble beginnings in a corner of Toa Payoh, NTUC FairPrice has become the quintessential Singaporean supermarket. The leap from a single store to a grocery giant is a tale of retail reinvention – a half-century journey that saw the cooperative confront crises and challenges, revamps and even robbers.

As it expanded and evolved, FairPrice never wavered from its core mission: to moderate the cost of living for consumers. It Takes a Great Deal - A Catalogue of FairPrice Group Stories encapsulates the birth of the consumer cooperative in 1973 and its transformation into a $4 billion food enterprise that is now called FairPrice Group.

Through 50 remarkable stories, we celebrate the people, products and places that mark significant milestones for the food retailer over the last five decades, charting its growth and successes in the past, present and into the future.