Meet the man behind Poh Kim Video, Singapore’s last DVD retailer: ‘Many people gave up, but I persisted’
From rental tapes to DVDs, Poh Kim Video has been in Singapore for 38 years. We chat with founder Lim Poh Kim to find out how it’s surviving the obsolescence of DVD players in an era of video-streaming platforms.
Before Netflix, decision paralysis was unheard of in the age of VCDs. Our choices were confined to discs one, two, and sometimes three, for really long movies. Growing up, my sister and I watched Cinderella so many times that we even knew the mice’s lines by heart. Given the limited selection our TV console held, the VCD store was a marvellous place to be in.
“Once the Pokemon soundtrack played, children would magically gather at our store entrance,” recalled Lim Poh Kim, CEO and founder of Poh Kim Video, in Mandarin. “Back then, cartoons were the rage among parents. Parents who grew up with Disney shows ended up purchasing them for their children.”
Poh Kim Video, of course, needs no introduction. The store has been selling home entertainment products for 38 years now, stocking classics like Beauty And The Beast since its debut till today. But while the allure of Disney is timeless, the same cannot be said for the technologies that make up Lim’s bread and butter.
And yet, even in the era of video streaming, Poh Kim Video seems to be going strong as Singapore’s last DVD retailer. What gives?
“A PRIVATE CINEMA IN THE HDB BLOCK”
Lim started Poh Kim Video in 1984 as a videotape rental service. He considers being an entrepreneur his first job, even though he had fiddled with electronics long before the first shop was opened at Bukit Timah.
“I was working as a technician before. When I was young, I was very interested in new technologies and videotapes had just become trendy,” said the 63-year-old Lim.
In those days, the videotape player market was dominated by two giants: Sony with its Betamax recording and cassette format, and JVC, which introduced the Video Home System (VHS) tapes. You might only remember the latter, which wound up with a larger market share because its machines were more compact.
The heyday of videotape rental was perfectly timed with the debut of several legendary TVB drama series. For S$5 a pop, customers could watch Chow Yun-fat on The Bund, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly for three days. Complete volumes could be loaned for a higher fee and longer duration, at least by folks who owned a VHS player.
“In the past, residents with VHS players attracted a lot of attention,” said Lim, recalling a time when these were fairly exclusive. “Neighbours and children would flock to their homes to watch movies. It was like having a private cinema in the HDB block.”
But VHS players weren’t half the status symbol that laser discs would later become. With superior audiovisual quality to boot, they were mainly used for karaoke. However, because laser discs can cost over a hundred dollars, they appealed to a smaller group of buyers.
At this point, Lim made the strategic move of copyright licensing. This allowed Poh Kim Video to manufacture in Japan, the only country that had laser disc factories then, and capitalise on a niche but affluent market.
In the past, residents with VHS players attracted a lot of attention. Neighbours and children would flock to their homes to watch movies. It was like having a private cinema in the HDB block.
FROM VHS TO LASER DISCS TO VCDS
The business made hay while the sun shone but laser discs didn’t stick around for long. In the early 2000s, VCDs began taking the world by storm.
“We were eliminated,” Lim recalled. “The first transition from VHS tapes to laser discs was okay because not everyone could afford them. But during the second transition from laser discs to VCDs, we incurred heavy losses.”
Since VCDs cost significantly less to produce, the same programme that costs S$80 on laser discs started going for S$10. Piracy became rampant and Poh Kim Video was met with one lawsuit after another. At one point, prices dipped to an all-time low of S$1.
“It was a very difficult time for Poh Kim,” he said, adding that VCDs forced several retailers out of the market. “Many people gave up, but I persisted because of the relationships and trust we had built with our staff.”
His tenacity paid off when the birth of DVDs came. Having stuck the cold and bitter VCD era out, Poh Kim was ready to serve an audience that had started to prioritise quality over pricing. They later became the first DVD retailer to make Korean drama television series accessible to Singaporeans.
You may remember Dae Jang Geum, Stairway To Heaven, and Full House. In the early 2000s, K-dramas gave Hong Kong’s TVB a run for its money, and were to homemakers what Pokemon was to children. Poh Kim acquired distribution rights for these titles and marked the Korean wave’s first inception in Singapore.
WHO ARE BUYING THESE DVDS?
Now that a DVD could cost as much as a monthly subscription to Netflix, who is still buying them? The answer is, surprisingly, both the young and old.
“To youngsters, the difference between watching a movie online and on a DVD lies in its quality,” Lim explained. “Those who are particular about audiovisual quality continue to buy from us.”
The customers who purchase Blu-ray and 4K varieties typically own compatible hardware, sometimes splurging up to tens of thousands on their set-ups.
“The 4K experience is even better than what you get in the cinema,” Lim beamed. “The distance between you and the screen is optimised. The Atmos audio is so immersive that you feel like the characters are talking to you.”
Other young customers include fans of blockbusters like Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings. They would purchase the series to display in their homes or simply to own a piece of the franchise.
The affinity between the outlet at Plaza Singapura and the stores above it also surprised Mr Lim. Apparently, comic enthusiasts and hobbyists who frequent the latter for merchandise would swing by Poh Kim Video to complete their collections.
The 20-year-old outlet is an outlier for another reason – tourists. According to Lim, Singapore is one of the last countries with a DVD retailer. Visitors from Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Thailand would buy DVDs as gifts, and generally take to shows that aren’t readily available in their home country.
Our older customers like to see their full selection sitting on their rack.
When asked if local drama series are any popular, Lim let us in on their unexpected audience: “Shows like Holland Village and The Little Nyonya are popular among Singaporeans who are living abroad. Probably because they are homesick and miss the local accent.”
Still, audiophiles, collectors, and tourists are the exception to the rule. Having lost its shine to young buyers, the DVD trade is mainly sustained by a generation for whom old habits die hard.
“Our older customers like to see their full selection sitting on their rack,” said Lim. Seniors, daunted by the process of searching for shows online, prefer the simplicity of loading a DVD on their player whenever they like.
“Our Korean dramas have also been dubbed in Mandarin. These can’t be found online and we forked out good money for it. We can’t attract youngsters who prefer English subtitles, but the elderly who have a hard time reading subtitles need them.”
When asked if there’s anything else at Poh Kim Video that cannot be found on the Internet, Mr Lim laughed and shook his head.
THE OBSOLESCENCE OF DVD PLAYERS
A tiny pool of customers, however, is not Poh Kim Video’s biggest problem at the moment.
“What’s most pressing now is that people no longer own DVD players,” said Lim. “People don’t replace them when they’re broken. They don’t see a need to. Our primary concern is to preserve the place of DVD players today. As long as they are in the market, our business can continue.”
When asked if I had one at home, I did not have the heart to tell Mr Lim that smart home set-ups have long made DVD players redundant. But should people like me fancy a 4K cinematic experience or a walk down memory lane, Poh Kim Video had an answer.
As major electronics stores retired DVD players, Mr Lim started stocking them. He loans this inventory to customers, gives them away with a minimum spend, and even does one-to-one exchanges with customers whose devices have seen better days.
“Some old customers say: My player is working fine but your disc is faulty! So we give them a DVD player from our store. If they like it, they can buy it. Otherwise, they can return it.”
When asked if customers have been compliant about returning them, he said: “Never mind lah. It doesn’t matter.”
Unsurprisingly, his clientele is largely made up of regulars who call every so often to enquire about new releases. These were also the customers who came through when the pandemic mangled retailers in 2020.
“We were heavily impacted during COVID-19,” Lim shared. “But we survived thanks to the support packages from the government. Suppliers and malls like Mapletree and Capitaland also helped us.”
We have reduced the number of stores along with the decline in customers. Someday, 12 stores will become eight, then five, then maybe one or two.
During this period, staff worked from home, rang up regular customers, and delivered DVDs to them. Thanks to folks who were trying to stay entertained at home during the circuit breaker, e-commerce sales also saw an uptick.
“Our staff trusted us and did not leave the company,” Lim said. “If they had no confidence, we would not be able to keep the business going.”
Not a single employee was retrenched in the pandemic, or in the store’s history of 38 years, said Mr Lim. Today, more than half his staff are above the age of 50 and many have worked for him for decades.
“They were there when I started Poh Kim,” he recalled. “And they are still here with me at 60 years old. As long as my staff wish to continue working, I will keep the shop going. We have a duty and responsibility to them.”
HOW IS POH KIM REALLY DOING?
Where I live, a Poh Kim Video store seems to be going strong even after the mall was upgraded thrice. But as it turns out, its foothold isn’t as steady as it seems. Poh Kim Video has 12 stores across Singapore, but its revenue is 5 per cent of what it used to be, Lim said. In fact, the ones in the heartland have trouble breaking even.
“The market is definitely not big, so we rely on a very specific clientele,” he said. “Our customer base from the early days has been watching our DVDs for decades. Some do so out of habit and others out of nostalgia. Old people find habits hard to change.”
An invisible yet loyal following has single-handedly kept Poh Kim afloat. And for a business built on dated technologies, staying afloat is a victory in its own right. Surviving might well be the best Poh Kim Video can do, but Lim had long come to terms with that.
“We are all retiring soon, so we aren’t after thick profit margins. We’re no longer in our youth where we dream of raking in the big bucks. We have reduced the number of stores along with the decline in customers. Someday, 12 stores will become eight, then five, then maybe one or two.”
When asked what drawing the shutters on Poh Kim Video’s last day might be like, Lim responds equanimously: “It doesn’t matter. It is only natural. Knowing that we have served customers well and made them happy is enough. Now we’re just focused on meeting the needs of regulars. I’m okay with that. It is not a big problem for me.”
On weekdays, Lim can be found at Poh Kim Video’s headquarters. After office hours, he makes it a point to visit two stores every evening and another two on the weekends. During this time, he checks on displays, chats with staff, and catches up with regular customers. The store at Lot One, for instance, is frequented by a 90-year-old man who had been with Poh Kim Video from the start.
“When he saw me, he was overjoyed and said: ‘I’m so happy to see you! Look, I’m in great spirits because I’ve been watching your DVDs. Otherwise, I would have gone senile by now’”, Lim recalled.
“When I heard this, I thought: At least our elderly customers still need us. Some even tell us not to close. We will keep going for as long as we have customers, however few that may be.”