Since Covid-19 first met Singapore in January, Singaporeans have been trying to snap up masks to protect themselves. Many also hoard masks of all kinds to prepare for a pandemic.
As demand grew exponentially, masks were soon sold out across the island. Even if the supply was replenished, they were quickly wiped out.
A quick search on Google Trends showed that the keyword "mask" saw a huge surge in interest in the last week of January and the first week of the "breaker" in Singapore.
Screenshot from Google Trends
In contrast, the outlook was rather flat last year.
When demand reached an all-time high, Singaporeans who were unable to get their hands on masks panicked as they continued to face a lack of masks, in addition to the exorbitantly high prices dangling from profiteers .
Prices rose by at least 500% in Singapore
Before Covid-19, the usual price for a box of fifty surgical masks was between $ 5 and $ 7, according to the mask importers that Vulcan Post had spoken to.
Before they sold out at local pharmacies, Watsons and Guardian sold them for $ 12.50 to $ 15 per box.
Photo credit: Anti Virus Club SG
After the masks became scarce, prices skyrocketed, approaching a price range of $ 30 to $ 35 per box – a whopping 500 percent increase over the original price.
Scalpers also tried to make money online quickly as they also raised their prices. In the Carousell online marketplace, prices ranged from $ 1.50 for a single non-reusable piece to $ 30 to 40 for a box of 50 pieces.
Although the rising cost of face masks is bad news for consumers, it meant good business for face mask importers. We spoke to three such importers to look at the mask situation in Singapore.
An opportunity to help others who need masks
He started business for John Menon of Anti Virus Club SG, who sells staple medical supplies, in early February when he saw Singaporeans looking for masks, disinfectants, thermometers, and alcohol swabs.
"I realized that my partners had stocks that the Singaporeans desperately needed, and I thought the best way to help would be to make them available here," said John.
He imports surgical masks from Vietnam, he said, adding that they compete with the usual three-layer masks that are on the market today.
Photo credit: Anti Virus Club
“We have two arms in the business. The consumer arm supplies consumers who shop for family or friends and give away the masks for a good cause, while the corporate arm supplies private clinics and other companies, including voluntary charities, ”continued John.
Jeremy Low, the founder of Axtro Sports, a company that sells fitness tech equipment, said he first wanted to help family members and friends who needed masks.
When customers asked if they had masks in stock, they decided to introduce masks through contacts they had built up over the years, mainly Chinese manufacturers.
Conversion of the main business to the import of masks
On the other hand, some companies in Singapore started importing masks overnight.
Among them was Ripple Technologies, a hardware / software development company for POS systems and solutions.
They started importing surgical masks from China in early March when some of their customers "complained that they apparently couldn't get high quality masks in Singapore."
Before Covid-19, we were supposed to enter some markets in Southeast Asia to distribute our hardware, and we had to interrupt that. As the F&B industry and various retailers are severely affected, our hardware sales have dropped to almost zero.
– Steve Hu from Ripple Technologies Pte Ltd.
Masks are also being introduced for Axtro Sports, whose main business is the sale of fitness equipment. They are also the company behind the fitness trackers for the National Steps Challenge.
Photo credit: Axtro Sports
They wanted to diversify and source from multiple sources, so they imported their masks from China, namely factories in Xiamen, Shenzhen and Zhejiang.
According to these two companies, they are simply venturing into the face mask import sector because they want to survive and keep workers. This is just another way for them to do business.
Dealing with wrong suppliers was an essential part of it
For Anti Virus Club SG, John said he shaved thoroughly at a dishonest supplier.
After almost being cheated by another supplier, I decided to fly to Vietnam myself to look for several manufacturers that could offer competitive prices and the best possible quality of the masks.
The trip was necessary to ensure that the people we wanted to help got the help they needed, although this meant that I had to stay home immediately upon my return.
– John Menon from Anti Virus Club SG
He also encountered factories in China that said they were certified, but were unable to demonstrate the required certifications, such as the ISO standard.
This appears to be very common in China, as the country recently seized more than 89 million sloppy face masks.
“As a local supplier, we had a fair share in having to screen supplier-level fraud. We have companies in other countries that claim to have the stocks you need but are not legitimate middlemen, ”said John.
Photo credit: China Daily
In the meantime, Jeremy said that Axtro Sports has a quality control team in China that personally visits the factories to check the quality.
Importers in Singapore face a shortage of face masks worldwide
Before Covid-19, mask production in China accounts for 50 percent of global mask production. They are the strongest country in the world in terms of mask production capacity.
To curb the supply shortage, many companies in China have switched to manufacturing masks, and production has increased almost tenfold since then.
However, in China itself there was a shortage of masks – especially in hospitals – which forced them to import masks from other countries such as Japan, India and the United States.
Photo credit: China Daily
Countries like India, the United States and Taiwan are the second largest face mask manufacturers after China. Taiwan in particular produces 15 million masks a day to meet the demand for face masks.
However, when these countries wanted to increase their production to meet the booming demand, there was still a worldwide shortage of face masks.
Delays and restrictions exacerbated the scarcity situation
According to Jeremy, it usually takes 2 to 3 days before Covid-19 days for inventory to arrive by air courier from DHL or FedEx. Now they expect an average of 10 to 14 days until the stock arrives.
“On April 14, the Chinese authorities restricted mask exports. They (expanded) export controls for all types of masks in Chinese ports, which resulted in a huge backlog of PPE (personal protective equipment) at four major airports in China and seaports, ”he said.
Photo credit: Axtro Sports
There was a restriction on the export of face masks for the distributor of disposable products for clean rooms, GSG M & S Pte Ltd, which mainly supplies to factories.
"With half of the face mask production happening in China, there was a massive shortage in February and March," said Roger Han of GSG M & S Pte Ltd about the early days when China was the epicenter of Covid-19.
Fortunately, they still had more than 300,000 masks in stock when China started blocking Wuhan. The Wuhan lock was a precedent for similar measures in other Chinese cities, and it did not help that supply disruptions were already occurring as a result of the Chinese New Year closing in China in January.
Our masks are designed for our regular customers to survive February and March, but we are also aware that people, especially employees at the front, urgently needed masks to protect themselves. We need to find out exactly how many masking boxes we can assign to each customer and how many we can offer to sell to people who need them most.
Our priority was to sell to people or clinics who most need the masks. We also tried not to sell to traders who would raise prices and resell.
– Roger Han from GSG M & S Pte Ltd.
Demand and prices show signs of a decline
John of Anti Virus Club SG said that the period when sales were highest was ironic when the government advised Singaporeans not to wear masks if they were not uncomfortable.
“Many customers told me that they wanted to wear masks to protect themselves from those who weren't wearing them. After the booth changed to "We all have to wear masks", people feel much better than everyone in public also wears a mask, so sales have slowed down a bit, "said John.
“Sales were highest between late March and early April when our manufacturing customers stocked up. The demand for face masks is still strong, but there are also many suppliers who import directly from China. The prices are not as crazy as in February or March, ”said Roger.
Photo credits: stacked houses
Axtro Sports sells fifty three-layer disposable masks at a cost of $ 29 per pack. They want to cut the cost of ocean freight as much as possible because the cost of air freight alone increased by 50 percent in April alone.
They bring in about 1,000 boxes of air freight each week and only sell them directly to consumers rather than to resellers if they resell the masks at a higher price.
They expect demand to increase again when people return to school and the office and trust that masks will continue to be part of our daily lives.
Anti Virus Club SG repeated the same thoughts. "We expect sales will increase as soon as people can go back to work as they have to protect themselves in public every day," said John.
Importing face masks could be a bulletproof industry
Photo credit: Parkway East Hospital
It is definitely not a seasonal business. Hospitals, factories and individuals need masks all year round.
Even after Covid-19 tips over, face masks will continue to be a sought after commodity as they are regularly delivered to hospitals and factories.
In addition, we could all start storing masks in our homes for fear that the next time we'll have to crawl to get our hands on basic medical care.
Countries can also store (more) supplies in order to better prepare for another pandemic.
Since citizens and medical staff on a global scale struggle with the lack of masks and eventually succumb to the virus, this pandemic has taught us a very valuable lesson: always be prepared for the future.
Selected image source: Anti Virus Club / Axtro Sports