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SINGAPORE — Back in 1986, the HDB blocks in Bukit Batok were only 12 stories high. There were few lifts in the estate, and Chong Wai Yoong, then 28, would go door to door to deliver as little as one bottle ($0.50) or up to a pack of Yakult ($2.50) to each household on her list. The mother of two had about 100 bottles in tow each day, as part of the Japanese company’s then brand new free home delivery service in Singapore.
Recruited by company representatives who came knocking on her door, the housewife was paid $200 as a basic income, minus commission. Starting from zero, Chong was expected to sign up new customers by explaining the health benefits of the probiotic milk beverage. “I didn’t dare to knock on doors or face customers at first,” recalled Chong in Mandarin. “But I slowly got better as I got to know the customers in my area.”
Within three months, about 60 customers had signed up with her. Chong soon became a well-known figure in the neighbourhood, working part-time six days a week and delivering twice a day. Over the years, Chong even took three incentive trips to Japan, a reward for high sales volumes.
Chong is among the more than 350 Yakult Ladies in Singapore, delivering Yakult all over the island each day. Globally, there are around 80,000 representatives like Chong who provide sales service with a personal touch.
The 62-year-old grandmother of four beamed with pride as she told Yahoo News Singapore, “The customers treated you like one of their own. It was as if I was the health angel of the area. Whether I was at the market or bringing my kids to school, people would go, ‘Yakult auntie!’ It was a very warm feeling.”
On one occasion, Chong said a customer had gone to the market and left her two young children at home with the instructions: Don’t open the door to anyone, unless it’s one of our own. “When I got there, the kids let me in to deliver the Yakult. When the customer came home, she said, ‘Didn’t I tell you not to open the door to anyone unless it’s one of our own?’”
An amused Chong added with a laugh, “The child replied, ‘But the Yakult auntie is one of our own.’ I was so happy when I heard that. It felt like a kampung.”
An enduring trade
While there are many probiotic drinks in the market such as Vitagen – another popular brand in Singapore which offers home delivery – and Siggi’s, Yakult is arguably the most well-known, having been established in Japan in the 1930s. It claims to benefit the digestive system via the use of friendly bacteria. The company came to Singapore in 1978 and now produces some 250,000 to 300,000 bottles a day here.
And the basic philosophy of the Yakult Lady scheme, which started in Japan in 1963, has not changed very much even in an age of Taobao and Amazon where there is little incentive to get to know your deliveryman.
Company representatives still go door to door to recruit ladies, who are typically housewives looking for flexible part-time work. The ladies are trained to do two things: deliver and propagate. Clad in the Yakult promotion tee and armed with change, a record card to update their customer database, a trolley bag and promotional brochures, these women deliver to existing customers and recruit new ones.
The women, who are assigned delivery areas around their homes, must be Singaporeans or permanent residents. They must be presentable, outgoing and cheerful. Some 1,500 to 2,000 bottles are sent to them from the Yakult factory in Senoko Avenue on a weekly basis. These days, the Yakult representatives’ income is solely based on commissions, and they earn between $1,000 and $3,000 per month on average.
Until the pandemic struck, when customers were incentivised to use PayLah with a free pack of Yakult drink, payment was largely by cash. The cost of the beverage has not changed much over more than three decades – a bottle is now $0.80, a pack of five $3.20.
But the typical customer now buys 10 bottles a week, while the average age of a Yakult Lady has increased from about 30 to 55.
At the beginning
The Yakult Lady scheme was spearheaded by veteran employee Catherine Liew, 67. She started in 1986 with an initial group of seven, with Chong as the first recruit. They were then all housewives in their 30s.
Liew herself went door to door to recruit them, covering hundreds of residential units a day. “It is not easy to ask because people cannot accept the nature of the job. Most of the people think that house to house, very xiong (Hokkien for tough), and also (they want) face lah. You go house to house, like begging for business.”
Asked how Liew managed to convince her to sign up, Chong said with a laugh, “She really knows how to talk.”
Convincing customers of the merits of the product – “Many customers took Yakult as a kids’ drink” – and the home delivery service was tough at first, said Liew. “Initially, most of the customers have a little bit of doubt. ‘You are kidding: one bottle a day? This service only costs 50 cents?’"
Some of the women gave up after a few months. But by the next year, Liew and her colleagues had recruited some 160 Yakult Ladies. Now an advisor to the programme, Liew attributes the longevity of the scheme to its personalised service, and the strong relationships built between the distributors and the customers.
While Liew is slated for retirement next year, she hopes to eventually see up to 450 Yakult Ladies in the scheme.
Housewife Joanne Wong, 52, is one of the newer breed – she became a Yakult Lady in 2014 and currently delivers to some 100 customers in Clementi. “Building the relationship at the start is always hard, and a bit embarrassing. You must be sincere,” said Wong, who has even been invited to birthdays and weddings by customers, in Mandarin.
And during Singapore’s partial lockdown, when the ladies were not allowed to work for about two weeks before they were reclassified as an essential service, customers would call Wong up to check on her. “I was very touched. You wouldn’t think that they would ask after you.”
Today, Chong delivers Yakult in Choa Chu Kang, where she has been living since 2012. The HDB blocks are much taller, but there are lifts everywhere now. With a minimum order of one pack, and some families ordering up to five packs a week, Chong lugs around 500 bottles each day in luggage trollies or sling bags.
But Chong still pounds the pavements four days a week, on foot or on bicycle. She rarely needs to consult her list – “I can remember all the units,” she said, pointing to her head. “If I were to start this job now at my age, it would definitely be tough. But I am experienced now, and the delivery is very smooth.”
Even the pandemic has not stopped her. “The customers were very happy to see me… their relatives could not visit them (during the lockdown), so when I visited them, they would say, ‘You are closer to me than my own family.’”
One longtime customer is Tan Bak Hong, who has been using the home delivery service since 1986. Now in her 60s, she first tried the drink after a Yakult Lady recommended it to her, when she was suffering a bout of nausea and stomach pains.
Formerly a resident of Bukit Batok, Tan now lives in Bukit Panjang, where she has continued to use the service. “My four grandchildren are always happy to see her. They will say ‘Yakult auntie is here’”, said Tan in Mandarin.
More than three decades on, has Chong thought about retiring? “Only if the customers don’t want me anymore. But as long as I still have stamina, I will carry on.”
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