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The quiet evolution of the Singapore consumer

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Shopping, it is said, is a national pastime in Singapore and evident from the crowds that throng the city-state's malls every day.

And analysts say that an affluent and a well-traveled consumer class are now helping to shape new shopping habits in the Southeast Asian nation, home to a population of about 5.2 million.

For instance, more shops catering to demand for overseas food and produce such as artisan bakeries have cropped up over the past year, while previously underdeveloped shopping areas have had a makeover to attract shoppers.

"It's no surprise that people are always looking for new options and are drawn to them. This is evidenced by the hordes of people that descend upon any place new, as when a new mall opens," says Lau Chuen Wei, executive director at the Singapore Retailers Association.

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"Singaporeans are amongst the world's most traveled people, and they are often attracted by what they see and experience overseas, so when some of these concepts are introduced to Singapore, they lap it up," she said.

A survey published last month by market research firm Nielsen showed that Singaporeans spend more of their spare cash on holidays than their Southeast Asian peers in Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.

Research firm Euromonitor International notes a rise in bakeries catering for changing tastes. Maison Kayser, a French bakery, opened its first Singapore store in December 2011, and Paul, another French bakery and café opened in February 2012 in the Takashimaya Shopping Centre on Orchard Road, Singapore's most well-known shopping hub.

"These bakeries reflect consumers' renewed fervor for quality bakes and evolving tastes. The spotlight is not on soft, pillowy buns, but on rustic, crustier breads like baguettes - the more European the bread, the better," it said in its latest report on Singapore consumer trends.

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Going abroad at home

Perhaps it's no surprise then that PasarBella, a farmers' market that opened up two months ago at a revamped shopping area located in central Singapore, is crowded at the weekend with shoppers snapping up organic produce, gourmet pies and home-baked goods.

"It's got the Borough market feel, but is not as dirty," says Heather Cheong, a Singaporean shopping at the market, a novelty in Singapore, on a Saturday morning. "Yes, it is expensive, but it's not an everyday occurrence for me."

In fact, famous farmers' markets such as London's Borough market and Melbourne's Queen Victoria market were an inspiration for setting up PasarBella, said one of the market's founders.

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"People are now more well-traveled and better-informed. They are discerning customers who understand food and its provenance," said PasarBella co-founder Clovis Lim.

"There is a shifting consumer trend of an emphasis on quality, instead of pricing. Our market reflects this, as we are extremely selective about the stalls that we bring in, and our stall owners are passionate individuals who love to share their knowledge and experience," he said.

Broader trend

Analysts say that signs of a more discerning consumer is not just evident in the food sector but in other areas too such as clothes and fashion.

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"Shoppers in Asia are redefining the traditional norms of value. Before, value was about shoppers trading down, making sacrifices. Today, it's more about weighing up not just the cost of goods but the multitude of benefits," said Connie Cheng, executive director of Nielsen's Shopper Practice in Southeast Asia, North Asia and Pacific.

"You see an emergence of boutiques in Asia and it's not just about mass fashion anymore, that is a trend that is catching here," she added.

Miranda Lindsay-Fynn, a British citizen who launched women's fashion retailer DoorstepLuxury.com with a Singaporean business partner in 2010 and opened a China town store a year ago, says shoppers are more focused on what they see as a good product and good value.

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"There is an evolution of the consumer – when people start earning money they start buying brands that show that and over time, they move away from just the logo," she said.

"Singapore has a lot of high-end luxury brands and Asian shops at the other end. There was nothing in between, but that has changed," she said. "We now have Zara and H&M and we see lots of demand for the independent labels available at our stores," Lindsay-Fynn added, referring to the European fashion retailers.

The challenge for retailers in Singapore, say analysts, is to keep up with changing tastes in city where shoppers can sometimes be fickle.

"Singaporeans are not the most loyal of consumers," said Lau at the Singapore Retailers Association. "They get bored easily, so the challenge to business owners is to diligently study their customers to determine their ever-changing preferences, to continually update themselves and to consciously differentiate themselves from their competitors of which there are many."

—By CNBC's Dhara Ranasinghe; Follow her on Twitter @DharaCNBC.

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