OPTICIAN Joseph Ng used to be nervous about marketing his specially coated lenses to customers who visited his spectacle shop in Joo Chiat Complex.

This was despite the O-level holder having been licensed as a qualified optician by Singapore Polytechnic and having been in the business for 30years.

He simply did not feel confident telling customers about the special lenses. He was afraid the high cost of the lenses, priced as high as $300 a pair, would turn them off.

These lenses can have special qualities, like being unbreakable and scratch-resistant, or they can ward off sun and computer glare.

But things have changed since last November, when he attended a pilot programme subsidised by the Workforce Development Agency (WDA).

He learnt how to display his merchandise to best effect, maintain a professional image, interact with customers and sell products and services. He paid just $64 for the programme, less than one-tenth of the actual cost.

Best of all, Mr Ng did not need to step out of his shop to get trained. Trainers visited him at his store, Crystalite Contact Lens and Optics, before he started work, from 9am to 11am.

Altogether, Mr Ng received 60hours of such training.

Today, Mr Ng, 50, confidently offers his customers a wide range of lenses from which to choose.

'In the past, we were scared that customers would run away once you talked about the high price of these special lenses. Now, we make them feel they have other options to consider, depending on their needs,' he said, adding that sales have increased by 10 to 20per cent.

Mr Ng is a beneficiary of a new initiative by the Housing Board and retail industry trainer Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (Sirs).

It aims to boost business in malls run by the HDB in housing estates, by providing 'on-site, bite-size training' for retailers to help them compete with the bigger malls.

There are 21 such HDB-run malls in Singapore. They include Gek Poh Shopping Centre in Jurong West, Loyang Point in Pasir Ris, and Sunshine Place in Choa Chu Kang.

Said WDA health-care, retail and business services division director Ang Chai Soon: 'On-site training works very well for HDB malls, whose small to medium-sized enterprises lack manpower.'

The initiative aims to get more such enterprises to attend courses under WDA's national skills upgrading programme, the Workforce Skills Qualification (WSQ) framework.

Some 550,000 workers have enrolled since 2005.

The share of SMEs sending their workers for WSQ certification doubled from 8.4per cent in 2009 to 16.8per cent last year.

Said HDB senior executive estate officer Chan Kian Ho: 'Shopkeepers are still using old methods and may not be attracting shoppers. We want them to upgrade their skills in visual merchandising and customer service to boost their businesses.'

HDB's aim is to 'make its malls more vibrant'. About 250 people in 100 shops have undergone training since a pilot phase began last September.

Those in Joo Chiat Complex who have undergone training are enthusiastic about the benefits. Goldsmith Puan Soo Hong, 64, of Hong Sheng Goldsmith, signed all 10 of his staff up, even paying the full, non-subsidised rate for two Malaysian employees.

'Staff motivation is up, people concentrate better at work, and our success rate with customers has gone up,' he said.

Madam Siti Rohani Habib Mohamed, 38, owner of a boutique store, said she learnt how to better handle customer complaints, as well as give better care instructions for her products.

HDB's target is to train most of the 900 establishments in all its 21 malls over the next two years. It has also started training retailers in the precinct shops which line many ground-floor corridors of HDB estates.

But some shopkeepers are sceptical. Said Ms Ng Liew Chia, 30, store supervisor of AC Collections boutique in Joo Chiat Complex: 'You can take as many courses as you want but if your attitude is still bad, there is no point.'

But Ms Megan Ong, assistant director of Sirs, pointed out: 'Even Orchard Road malls are revitalising themselves, and neighbourhood commercial malls like Lot One and Jurong Point also pose competition to these heartland shops. We will continue to highlight to them that they cannot afford to be left behind.'