3. Going Against the Grain

Photo: Workers preparing for a rice sale at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Welcome supermarket in Toa Payoh in 1973. Source: iStock.com/rvimages

As Singaporeans tuck into ample bowls of rice at the dinner table today, it is hard to ever imagine the staple being in short supply or unattainable. Yet, in the mid-1970s, amid volatile oil prices and unreliable grain sources, there were concerns that the everyday carbohydrate could become unaffordable for the masses.

Prices swung unpredictably from day to day – a kilogram could cost 50 cents one month and a dollar the next. Opportunistic retailers jacked up the prices, while middlemen lined their pockets with a significant share of the profits. The biggest victim was the ordinary consumer. But NTUC Welcome, the predecessor of FairPrice Group, went against the grain to keep prices stable.

To do this, a steady supply and the suppression of costs upstream were needed. It revolved around the government rice stockpile, a national system which ensured that Singapore would have sufficient rice at any time. Welcome was able to buy directly from this government stockpile at cost price, instead of from rice importers at a higher rate. This meant that the chain could sell rice at a reasonable price, passing on savings to customers. Competitors would also have no choice but to follow suit in terms of pricing, or lose out.

Welcome would later go on to become a government-licensed rice importer, giving it more levers in keeping the staple affordable for everyone.

Today, prices have not only been kept stable, but also affordable. FairPrice’s May Day 2023 promotion prices saw rice prices of between $1.18 and $1.35 per kg – cheaper than or equal to 1973 prices when adjusted for inflation. Even in challenging situations like a pandemic or geopolitical conflict, FairPrice aims to rise to the occasion – or rather, ensure there is rice at every occasion.

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.