AS THE labour crunch continues, some retail and food and beverage chains are shortening their shifts to as little as two hours, hoping to coax more casual workers into the job market.

One example is home improvement chain Home-Fix, which plans to offer shifts of two to three hours. Short shifts get around the problem of long retail hours, which may put off Singaporeans, said its managing director Low Cheong Kee. Home-Fix's stores open from 10am to 10pm.

'It suits housewives and retirees who might have other commitments, like going home to cook or looking after their grandchildren,' he said.

Singapore's employers are getting creative as the rules on hiring cheap foreign labour tighten further.

From next month, foreigners can form no more than 45 per cent of a service company's workforce, down from 50 per cent.

'With the clampdown on foreign worker numbers, hiring part-timers to augment the full-time workforce has become very important for retailers like us,' said Mr Low.

Sushi chain Sakae Sushi is another company that offers shifts as short as two hours. It also tailors each week's roster to suit employees' schedules.

Kitchen assistant See Kwee Fong appreciates her three- to four-hour shifts. 'I have time to do housework and cook dinner for my daughters,' said the 46-year-old mother of two.

Sakae Sushi chief executive Douglas Foo added: 'Of course, this means we have to work a lot on our scheduling.'

Employment and Employability Institute chairman Ong Ye Kung said that offering short shifts may not be an easy solution as this might work only if employees are living nearby.

'Otherwise, transport expenses alone may not make it worthwhile for workers to travel and work for just two to three hours,' he said.

For Sakae Sushi, workers living nearby are precisely their target. It draws a 1km radius around each outlet, and focuses on attracting housewives and retirees in the area. It has hired more than 20 workers through this approach.

The tight labour market means housewives and retirees are becoming an increasingly attractive source of labour, said Singapore Retailers Association vice-president R. Dhinakaran, who is managing director of retail group Jay Gee Melwani.

His company has also introduced shorter shifts and more flexible scheduling.

Associate Professor Angelique Chan, director of the National University of Singapore-Tsao Ageing Research Initiative, said that as Singapore's population ages, more of the elderly 'are going to need and want to work, but not full-time'.

She said short shifts are a good option, especially as retail and F&B jobs require staff to stay on their feet - something the elderly might not be able to do for long hours.

In the past decade, more women and older workers have entered the labour market.

Last year, labour participation for women was 57 per cent, up from 51.6 per cent in 2001.

Almost two-thirds of residents aged 55 to 64 joined the workforce in 2011. A decade ago, it was less than half.

Yet, as more companies join the hunt for part-timers, some which started early feel they can go no further.

For more than five years, kaya toast chain Ya Kun International has worked around employees' schedules and placed staff in branches close to home.

But the labour crunch makes it harder and harder to stay flexible, said executive chairman Adrin Loi.

'If you have a big enough pool of people working for you, then you can be flexible about when they work and so on. But if you don't have enough people, then you can't.'