KUALA LUMPUR - Even though it has had a negative impact on both public health and the economy, the Covid-19 outbreak was a game changer when it came to digital transformation, forcing retailers to migrate to online platforms in a bid to stay afloat.
Sports attire business owner Muhammad Qayyum Al Qadri saved his five-year-old firm from permanent closure by setting up a website and retraining his staff, while staying at home and with very limited resources at his disposal.
"We're quite known in the sports scene but we didn't really have an online presence because I procrastinated with generating the content. That was my fault, but I didn't think anything could possibly go wrong until the pandemic broke out. We had to temporarily shut down when the government enforced the MCO, that was when we became 'paralysed'," he said, referring to the movement control order (MCO) which was implemented on March 18.
"After discussing with my team, I purchased a website domain, set up an Instagram account and announced it to our customers via a broadcast message on WhatsApp. Over three months into the MCO, we now have more than 2,000 followers on Instagram and our sales are more stable," said the 39-year-old man from Petaling Jaya.
During the MCO, Malaysians were banned from leaving their homes unless necessary.
More than 209,000 retail stores, including 90 per cent of stalls and markets, were forced to shut down, resulting in zero sales.
On May 4, the movement curbs were relaxed, allowing most businesses to reopen. By then, thousands of businesses had already ceased operations permanently.
According to Retail Group Malaysia (RGM), sales dipped by 28.8 per cent within the first two weeks of the MCO, compared to the same period last year.
The Malaysian retail industry is expected to suffer a decline in sales of 5.5 per cent (RM10.9 billion) this year, instead of the 4.6 per cent growth projected in December 2019, the RGM forecasted.
Traditional Malay clothing Poya Boutique owner Adilah Khairudin, 37, said: "We've been operating via a physical store for more than 20 years so when the MCO was announced, I panicked because 90 per cent of our sales came from there. We have an Instagram account but it wasn't really utilised until recently. With the little resources I have, I carefully curate the content to lure potential customers. I'm now a storyteller for my products and I need to be creative.
"And it works, I'm now getting customers from Kelantan, Penang and Terengganu. Before this, most of my customers were mostly based in the Klang Valley, especially Bangsar and Subang Jaya. The pandemic made me realise that there is a bigger market for businesses online."
But moving online comes with challenges as all sellers, from home-based businesses to mall tenants, work out new ways to manage inventory and fulfil orders.
"There were a lot of hiccups during the first month (of the MCO) when fulfilling the orders - some got mixed up, some were overlooked. We basically made a lot of mistakes, including undercharging our customers the courier fees and so on. But with every mistake we make, we get to learn more," Mr Qayyum said.
To ensure a smooth operation, Madam Adilah said she had to move some of her stock to her residence to ease the fulfilment process.
"Now, my days are spent replying to customers' private messages online and also fulfilling their orders from home. I plan to go full-fledged digital but my concern is, it's a completely different ball game - the strategy is different, how creative can I be? I need to equip myself with the right knowledge. I also need to invest in photoshoots for my products and advertise on a relevant platform," she said, adding that her husband and housemaid assist her with shooting promotional videos.
Despite the easing of MCO restrictions, mall visitor numbers have also significantly decreased.
"I no longer feel comfortable going to shopping malls or any other public places so I think retailers going online is the way forward. I don't think we will ever be able to go back to 'normal', so I really love seeing how many of them have started selling online. The only downside is, if you're buying clothes, you won't be able to feel the material but I can live with that," said shopper Nur Aisyah Ismail, 28.