Bugis Street Online out to make a difference: CEO Ivan Loh's business mantra

CEO Ivan Loh aims to provide a seamless shopping experience both online and offline

Bugis Street Online chief executive Ivan Loh (centre) believes retail today is about how the brick and mortar shops and e-commerce can complement each other.
Bugis Street Online chief executive Ivan Loh (centre) believes retail today is about how the brick and mortar shops and e-commerce can complement each other. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Make a difference - that is entrepreneur Ivan Loh's mantra when it comes to business.

It is also one of the guiding principles behind Bugis Street Online, an e-commerce platform enabling vendors from Bugis Street, and other local small-time businesses, to sell their wares on the Internet.

Bugis Street Online, a subsidiary of the Bugis Street management, is slated to make its official debut by the end of June.

Mr Loh, 37, who is chief executive of the firm, told The Straits Times in a recent interview that the platform aims to help local shops stay afloat in the cut-throat retail industry.

"Consumer behaviour is changing, so the way our retailers do business has to change too," said Mr Loh, noting that foot traffic for retail worldwide has been decreasing even as costs continue to rise.

"So to bridge the gap - that's where we hope to come in. It's about how we can keep up and stay relevant in today's landscape."

But Bugis Street Online, added Mr Loh, will be more than just another e-commerce platform.

It offers an omni-channel solution, which means retailers can tap multiple business channels to drive sales while providing customers with a seamless shopping experience both online and offline.

For instance, a retailer's brick- and-mortar shop will allow the customer to experience and learn about its brand and products. The customer can then deliberate over the product and purchase it later online.

Or, a customer who has been browsing through the products online can head down to the store to try out the products and even experience new ones.

"Physical spaces will shrink, and this will help shops. They won't have to hold so much inventory because the physical store becomes more of an experiential space for the brand, like a showroom," said Mr Loh, adding that retailers will be able to save on manpower costs as well.

More than $500,000 has gone into developing and setting up the platform. "Retail today is not about brick and mortar, but it's also not just about e-commerce. It's about how the two can complement each other," noted Mr Loh.

"Having a physical presence is still important because customers want to be able to still touch and feel a product or try it on. It's about the experience."

About 80 retailers have signed on to Bugis Street Online, including some businesses outside of Bugis Street. The platform opened its doors to other retailers last August, after Mr Loh received several requests from them to be listed online.

"We've also been focusing on helping local retailers that have been around for a while," he said, citing mom-and-pop shops such as Elsie Departmental Store, which has been selling needlecraft supplies in Ang Mo Kio for more than 20 years.

"Bugis Street really is a community, and we hope that Bugis Street Online can translate that same feel. We want to be there for our local retailers. These shops are our local gems, Singapore's heart and soul, and it would be a shame to see them go."

Mr Loh added that Bugis Street, which is widely recognised across the region as a tourist attraction, will also allow retailers to easily market their brands in other countries.

The idea of Bugis Street Online came about in November 2011, spurred by an exercise during one of Mr Loh's classes while he was studying for his master's degree in business administration.

The exercise was aimed at getting students to think about the limitations of a business and coming up with a solution to ensure the business remains sustainable.

Mr Loh, who previously majored in psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, was director of marketing at Bugis Street Development at that time.

"For us as a retail property manager, the biggest limitation was the physical space," he said. "But going online was virtually limitless."

Still, the journey has not been without its bumps. Getting retailers to go on board Bugis Street Online, particularly those from an older generation, was a major hurdle for the company, said Mr Loh.

"There was a lot of hand-holding. Most of them needed a lot of help," he said. "We also organised many briefing sessions to provide insight on the way the retail industry was evolving and how we could help."

Mr Loh and his team, for instance, spent more than five months helping a Bugis Street tenant in her 50s walk through the entire process - from taking pictures of her products to putting them up online, to handling logistics.

The tenant had been resistant to the idea at first as she was unfamiliar with computers and was not convinced learning these new skills was worth her time and effort.

"The turning point was when she saw her first sale online, she was so excited," recalled Mr Loh. "Then she started to put more products online and saw more sales, and it motivated her to get more involved."

And Mr Loh wants to help the retailers gain more. He plans to roll out a system which will help retailers better track customer behaviour and consumption patterns, as well as implement another system that will help them sync both offline and online inventory.

"That Bugis Street Online can help local SME retailers beyond our walls, and can potentially be a local representation or collective of Singaporean retailers to explore opportunities in foreign markets - that is my motivation," said Mr Loh.

"It's even more rewarding when more and more established local retailers located in our heartland come on board and tell us that we are making a difference."

Beyond Bugis Street Online, Mr Loh, who is not married, has his hands full with another tech-based venture, Pet Widget, an app for pet owners. He also conducts lessons on entrepreneurship as an adjunct professor at Nanyang Polytechnic.

"This is what helps get things done," he quipped, pointing to a coffee mug on the table during the interview.

Mr Loh's advice for budding entrepreneurs? Venture into something you are passionate about.

"A lot of challenges will await you throughout the entrepreneurial journey, so without the passion, you'll lose steam very quickly."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline Bugis Street Online out to make a difference: CEO Ivan Loh's business mantra. Subscribe