Younger customers heading to pawnshops for quick cash
Wearing a black football jersey, bright red sneakers and a pair of trendy headphones around his neck, student Leonard Lee walks confidently into a pawn shop at Toa Payoh Central and places a silver Seiko watch on the counter.
"I'd like to pawn this, please," the 19-year-old tells the staff.
About 10 minutes later, he walks out with a pawn ticket to join his girlfriend of the same age, who had been looking at second-hand jewellery at the shop's display cabinets.
The watch, which cost him $500, was appraised for $400 at the counter. He borrowed only $200.
He says to this reporter: "Well, I needed the money because I need to pay my phone bill. I stupidly forgot to turn off roaming services when I travelled last month.
"(Pawning items) is pretty fuss-free. I'll be back to redeem the watch soon enough."
A customer his age was a rare sight a decade ago, says a pawn shop manager who gave his name only as Mr Cheng.
But these days, younger customers are common, he says.
"One in five of the people who walk in here is below 30," estimates the manager, who has more than 10 years of experience.
"Today's young people aren't afraid to come to the pawn shop. It's an easy way to get cash without needing to pay huge interests," says Mr Cheng, who is in his late 40s.
Several younger customers tell The New Paper on Sunday that pawnbrokers are a better alternative to moneylenders or banks, primarily because of lower interest rates.
Instead of the 10 to 30 per cent interest rate that moneylenders can charge, pawnbrokers charge rates as low as one per cent of the amount borrowed each month.
Says Mr Lee: "I have read many news articles about people going broke from paying off bank loans, or getting into trouble with moneylenders.
"But I have never read the same things about pawn shops."
Pawn shops came under the spotlight last month after Parliament passed new laws to regulate the pawnbroking industry, requiring pawnbrokers to conduct stricter checks on customers.
The number of pawnbrokers has almost doubled since 2006 and the value of loans they have granted rose from $1.6 billion in 2006 to $7.1 billion in 2012, before declining to $5.5 billion in 2013.
As of 2013, there were 204 pawnbrokers here.
Mr Shyam Masumbar, 18, thinks it is better to borrow from a pawnbroker than from one's parents.
The Institute of Technical Education College West student pawned his $300 gold ring to borrow $100, saying: "My parents will give me money if I ask, but I want to be independent. I don't think this mentality is unique to me either."
He broke his mobile phone screen two weeks ago and needed some instant cash to offset the $160 he spent to repair it.
We spoke to him on Tuesday, when he returned to redeem the ring.
"It's my first time at a pawn shop. It looked very professional, so I just walked in. I will definitely recommend it to my schoolmates if they are in some form of emergency and need cash."
What attracts younger customers, he believes, are the professional-looking shop fronts and the younger staff.
"I don't feel that there is any stigma attached to pawning your items. That's probably a notion of the past," he says.
Pawnbrokers have had to adapt their methods to cater to their emerging younger clientele.
Says store manager Mr Cheng: "Usually, they only want to pawn the items of smaller value, such as cheaper watches and jewellery with lower carat ratings.
"Thankfully, they also tend not to be too interested in haggling with us when we appraise items, unlike the older customers who will try to tell us that their items are heirlooms very valuable to them."
Some also try to pawn their laptops or gaming consoles, but Mr Cheng says they are not accepted.
"I have to tell them that we're not eBay," he adds.
It's a trend that has also led to new opportunities, says a spokesman for Money Max.
It is the first pawnbroker here to implement an online valuation platform, allowing customers to submit photographs of their items so that they can be appraised.
If they are satisfied with the valuation, they can visit the physical shop to continue the process.
Says the spokesman: "Through this initiative, we hope to empower our younger and tech-savvy customers with more knowledge about their valuables."
He declined to reveal exact figures, but says the company has seen more younger customers of late.
"In the past, there were negative connotations associated with entering pawnshops and engaging in pawnbroking services.
"However, with the transformation and modernisation of the pawnbroking business, we have witnessed many positive changes and observed an increasing pool of younger customers who are also interested in the buying and trading of pre-owned jewellery and timepieces," he says.
Older customers also benefit from the confidence boost that comes with the cleaner and sleek-looking counters, although for them, the stigma still remains.
Says a regular pawnbroking customer, Madam Tan, 58, in Mandarin: "In the past, entering a pawn shop felt like going to a police station, with the staff hiding behind metal bars.
"You visit it and feel poor.
"Nowadays, it looks like a goldsmith or a bank. You do feel a bit richer being there."
She declines to give her full name as she does not want people to know that she visits pawn shops.
"The (glass) doors are always left open now and are so transparent, people can see me going in. I don't want people to think that I'm broke."
"In the past, entering a pawn shop felt like going to a police station, with the staff hiding behind metal bars. You visit it and feel poor. Nowadays, it looks like a goldsmith or a bank. You do feel a bit richer being there."
- Madam Tan