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Retail veteran bent on creating top go-to brand

Mr Kenneth Aruldoss at the opening of Harvey Norman's two-storey, 38,500 sq ft factory outlet in Chai Chee Road last Saturday.
Mr Kenneth Aruldoss at the opening of Harvey Norman's two-storey, 38,500 sq ft factory outlet in Chai Chee Road last Saturday.PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Making Harvey Norman the ultimate shopper's choice both online and in-store is exec's leading mission

Offering every shopper the "ultimate experience" is the goal that keeps Harvey Norman Asia managing director Kenneth Aruldoss going, even after 30 years in sales.

"The consumers of today expect more, demand more, want more," Mr Aruldoss, 57, told The Straits Times in an interview last week.

"It is our job to cater to their needs. Our job is to find out what the market wants, and cater for that. I think that is very, very important."

The Australian department store giant - a household name here in electronics, computers, furniture and bedding - has steadily expanded its footprint in Singapore, even as the retail sector continues to grapple with headwinds.

Over the weekend, Harvey Norman unveiled a new, two-storey, 38,500 sq ft factory outlet in Chai Chee Road that stocks items at up to 90 per cent off usual prices.

"People work very hard for their money, and want to spend their money wisely. The Harvey Norman factory outlet is where, I would say, the smart money shops. They get bargains here," said Mr Aruldoss.

The retail chain has also added to its space at the Parkway Parade store, an expansion that has yet to be officially launched. It opened its three-storey, 100,000 sq ft flagship store in Millenia Walk in late 2015.

"If you take a look at Harvey Norman's vision - which is to provide the ultimate customer experience - and put it at the centre of everything we do, we have to change our shops to cater to what consumers want today," Mr Aruldoss explained.

"People want to walk into a store that is welcoming, where it's bright. They want a wide range of products, knowledgeable staff, a good online presence and good prices.

"From the time a customer first walks into a store, from their first impression right through to the last - that experience must be a memorable one."

He said Harvey Norman has had to evolve alongside consumer habits and tastes, which have changed significantly in recent years. Customers today pay far more attention to, for example, kitchen and smart home appliances, as well as health and wellness products.

Offering that ultimate experience means stores must be supported by a solid range of products, which is why Harvey Norman plans to refurbish its other outlets here and roll out new ones.

The physical stores continue to account for over half of its sales here, compared with its online platform, said Mr Aruldoss.

Still, moves to transform Harvey Norman and make sure it stays on top of its game go beyond just changing the look and feel of its bricks-and-mortar stores.

The firm is ramping up efforts for its digital platform "in a big way", to create a more seamless online and offline experience for customers, said Mr Aruldoss, although he stopped short of revealing details.

"We always knew, for many years already, that e-commerce was going to change things. But we also knew that physical stores would continue to be important, because you can't have an online presence without physical stores," he noted.

"So we've got to gear up our online platform to support our stores, and gear up our stores to support our online platform. We have put a lot of things in place for our people to change, and also for consumers to know that we are changing."

All of these changes came when Mr Aruldoss joined Harvey Norman's Singapore team in 2015 - to help revamp the business.

He first joined the firm in Australia, back in 1998, as a salesman.

In 2014, he headed its business in Malaysia, before returning to Singapore, where he was born, to oversee operations here.

Internally, he rolled out measures to make processes more efficient, including ones related to controlling and managing inventory, monitoring sales, improving the e-commerce business and boosting training for staff. Harvey Norman has about 550 staff in Singapore.

"Everything we do is focused on productivity. Without that, your business is never going to grow - you're never going to maximise your potential," noted Mr Aruldoss, who is an Australian citizen.

As a result, Harvey Norman's Singapore business saw sales rise last year from the year before. Its net profit figures were among the top three for the group worldwide.

"We want Harvey Norman to be the go-to brand. We want Harvey Norman to be at the top of consumers' minds with the products we sell. You want a bed, it's Harvey Norman. You want to buy a sofa, it's Harvey Norman. That's the ultimate vision," added Mr Aruldoss.

Getting into sales was not something Mr Aruldoss, now married with three daughters, had expected when he was younger. He landed his first job as a part-timer at Ted's Cameras in Australia, after doing national service in Singapore.

"When I sold my first camera, there was a buzz in my head. It gave me a kind of satisfaction," he recalled, adding that he still remembers the model he sold - a Pentax ME Super.

"I found that I had the ingredients to sell, but not the skills yet. At my next company, my mentor taught me the skills - how to find out what customers need, how to ask the right questions. I told myself, if that's what it takes to become a really good salesperson, I'm going to practise, practise, practise again, and that was what I did," he said.

"In anything you do, you've got to put in some effort to get to where you want to go. The people along the way - they play a big part too," he added. "Nothing is easy. But perseverance and persistence pay off."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Retail veteran bent on creating top go-to brand'. Print Edition | Subscribe