Coronavirus pandemic

Retail shops in Malaysia move online to stay afloat

Small businesses find new markets on virtual platforms, but also face fresh challenges

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. It forced 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 company from permanent closure by setting up a website and retraining his staff while staying at home, with very limited resources at his disposal.

"We're quite known in the sports scene, but we didn't really have an online presence. 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 Malaysia's movement control order, which was implemented on March 18.

"After discussing it 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 from Petaling Jaya.

During the MCO, Malaysians were banned from leaving their homes unless it was necessary. More than 209,000 retail stores, including 90 per cent of stalls and markets, had to shut down, resulting in zero sales.

On May 4, the movement curbs were relaxed, allowing most businesses to reopen. But by then, thousands of businesses had ceased operations permanently.

According to Retail Group Malaysia (RGM), sales fell by 28.8 per cent in the first two weeks of the MCO, compared with the same period last year.

The Malaysian retail industry is expected to suffer a decline in sales of 5.5 per cent or RM10.9 billion (S$3.6 billion) this year, instead of the 4.6 per cent growth projected last December, the RGM forecast.

Madam Adilah Khairudin, 37, owner of traditional Malay clothing shop Poya Boutique, 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 few resources I have, I carefully curate the content to lure potential customers.

Madam Adilah Khairudin, owner of traditional Malay clothing shop Poya Boutique, found that after going online, she started getting customers from different parts of Malaysia, whereas her physical store of more than 20 years attracted mostly customers
Madam Adilah Khairudin, owner of traditional Malay clothing shop Poya Boutique, found that after going online, she started getting customers from different parts of Malaysia, whereas her physical store of more than 20 years attracted mostly customers from the Klang Valley area. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ADILAH KHAIRUDIN

 
 
 
 

"I'm now a storyteller for my products - 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 based in the Klang Valley. 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). We basically made a lot of mistakes. But with every mistake we make, we get to learn more," Mr Qayyum said.

To ensure a smooth operation, Madam Adilah also 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 need to equip myself with the right knowledge. I also need to invest in photo shoots for my products and advertise on a relevant platform," she said.

Despite the easing of MCO restrictions, mall visitor numbers have 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," said shopper Nur Aisyah Ismail, 28.

"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."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2020, with the headline 'Retail shops in Malaysia move online to stay afloat'. Print Edition | Subscribe