Carpet sellers roll out hub plan

Amin Bagheri, Director, The Orientalist, Singapore.

SINGAPORE - The Handknotted Carpet Association plans to travel abroad with the help of the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to promote Singapore as a hub for the Oriental carpets industry.

The move was mooted at the association's annual general meeting last Thursday and its members are hoping that it can be their magic carpet ride out of what has been a "gradual slowdown" in business.

Sales have apparently fallen by up to 40 per cent in the last 10 years, no thanks to the economic downturns, which have hit the pockets of the industry's affluent clientele here.

"We need to go out and promote our products with the help of the STB," said the association's newly elected president, Mr Edmund Rajendra.

"China is one of the destinations we spoke about, although we've also talked about (going to) Russia, Cambodia on roadshows."

Ubiquitous discount signs on the windows of carpet showrooms speak of recent changes in this age-old trade.

"Customers are now only comfortable with a carpet in the range of $2,500 to $5,000," said Mr Amin Bagheri, director of The Orientalist.

"About eight years ago, they could go up to $10,000 or $12,000 for one."

The second-generation owner relocated his business from Cuscaden Road to downtown Somerset in hopes of attracting a more diverse clientele and tourists. This is even though rent at his new 3,500 sq ft store is 40 per cent more.

Not all have that option.

Take Mr Esmaeil Molazadeh, owner of Gabbeh Carpet, for example. He participates in roadshows with the Singapore Furniture Association monthly but has since had to downsize his business because of lower sales in recent years.

High-quality handknotted carpets command high prices - sometimes up to millions of dollars depending on the material used, such as wool or silk, the condition, rarity of the motif and its age.

But some carpet sellers have diversified into other carpet products to stay afloat. "In the past five years, we have added machine-made (carpets) to our business to serve those who don't want an expensive handknotted carpet," said Mr Saeid Labbafi, who owns nine carpet shops along Arab Street.

Established by the STB eight years ago in a bid to help promote specific businesses here to tourists, the Handknotted Carpet Association says it plans to be more aggressive going forward.

Other than banding together for the Great Singapore Sale or holding exhibitions at Changi Airport, its members now hope to better engage with its clientele.

It plans to bring carpet artisans and restorers to Singapore to boost the market profile, something it had discussed with the STB six months ago. "There should be a breakthrough soon," said Mr Rajendra, who is also the managing partner of Eastern Carpets.

Flagging sales, however, is just one of the issues these carpets merchants face. Another challenge is succession planning for what are usually family-run businesses.

Mr Suliman Hamid, a third-generation owner of Hassan's Carpets - one of the oldest carpet businesses here, says he hopes a nephew or niece can take over in the future. This is because his four daughters are now pursuing other careers.

"It's a family business so we will have to get someone from our new generation to take over," he said.

rmytan@sph.com.sg


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