Skip to content

Priceless Lessons from a Flea Market

30 Sep 2008

MI Flea Market

Crowds thronged the MI Mart at Plaza Singapura.

Lelong, lelong! Who doesn't love a good deal and the pleasant surprises of a street bazaar? Well, bargain hunters were in luck this August, as 300 enterprising students from Millennia Institute (MI) held their first-ever flea market at Plaza Singapura. With 30 stalls brimming with street wares from Bangkok's legendary night markets, MI Mart welcomed more than 70,000 curious onlookers who snapped up handmade jewellery, personalised handphone accessories and electronic gadgets at irresistible prices.

It may look like fun, but for MI Pre-U 1 students who study Economics, Accounting or Management, MI Mart is serious business and a first-hand look at how textbook concepts work in a real life enterprise. From its modest beginnings as a single stall at Tanglin Mall in 2005, MI Mart has grown in scale and depth, providing students a practical lesson in running a retail outfit, from writing business plans to financing, pricing strategies to marketing.

"We are the only school that offers all three 'A' level business subjects in Singapore," says Mr Tang Hsin Wei, MI's Subject Head in Economics. Students who take one or more of these subjects account for nearly two-thirds of the Pre-U 1 intake, making MI Mart an endeavour that involves nearly every Millennian and their friends.

MI Flea Market

MI students with their goods from Bangkok.

To Bangkok for business

A few lucky Millennians even had the opportunity to travel well beyond the classroom, all the way to Bangkok this May to look for goods to sell in Singapore. As the 28-strong delegation exchanged greetings of "Sawatdee-kaa!" with local vendors in the Chatuchak Weekend Market and Suan Lum Night Bazaar, the team quickly discovered that Singaporeans and Thais do business quite differently.

"Bangkok vendors allow bargaining, while Singapore businesses sell at fixed prices," notes MI student Zhi Rong of his experience. His schoolmate Ming Yang observes that there are far more wholesale businesses in Thailand compared to Singapore. With advice from a friendly local guide, the students unearthed little "dos and don'ts" essential for doing business with Thais. Topping the list were sincerity and respect, and the aspiring student entrepreneurs learned the importance of "soft" cultural skills, such as committing to a purchase once a suitable price is agreed upon.

After each shopping spree, the students and their teachers gathered to reflect on the Economics, Accounting and Management concepts observed at the markets. "They observed very unique practices that you don't see in Singapore," says Mr Tang. "We saw auctions outside shopping malls, which people don't encounter in Singapore."

He adds, "The pricing system is also unusual, because different clothing sizes have different prices. We then spent the night explaining to the students their observations, based on business concepts." One thing's for certain - at the end of the merchandising trip, the students returned with loads of hard-earned bargains and newfound knowledge in tow.

MI Flea Market

The Flea Market was a real life lesson in business and economics.

The business of business

When MI Mart unveiled its wares in August, keen shoppers swooped in, ringing the tills to the tune of $12,000 in a single day! Mr Tang is greatly encouraged by the success of this experiential project, which serves as "a reference point" for students to learn about business practices. Even months after the stalls have come down, students and teachers still actively review the pros and cons of the event, seeking to improve future MI Marts. They found that there were benefits in buying products overseas and re-selling them in Singapore, such as increased variety and cheaper wholesale prices. However they also have to take into consideration other factors like accommodation, travel down-time and exchange currency rates.

It's no wonder that Plaza Singapura's general manager, Ms Pauline Yeh, was so impressed by the students' marketing savvy, creativity and spirit of enterprise. She has even offered to provide support for future entrepreneurial ventures and to extend the event by another day. As for Mr Tang and his fellow teachers, MI Mart has helped convey lessons that no classroom session could bring to life, pitting his students against the real world and showing them what it really means to be in the business of business.