Coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus: Businesses speed up move into digital space

Transformation set to continue beyond Covid-19 crisis, say webinar panellists

Shops shuttered during the circuit breaker period in Singapore. Many businesses have taken a hit to their sales and have turned to online channels in a bid to stay afloat.
MR CHEE HONG TAT, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry

The pandemic has accelerated the move to digital among small businesses as hawkers and retailers scramble to get online to stay afloat during the circuit breaker period, panellists said yesterday.

Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Association, Singapore (FMAS), at the webinar, said: "Many bricks-and-mortar businesses... have been disrupted during this period, but we also see this trend of business being done in the digital space instead.

"We have seen in the last few weeks that many traditional food and beverage businesses, and even hawkers, rush to go online and create a presence."

He said that even residents in heartland areas search online before going out to buy products and they can make inquiries over social media channels, such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat noted that while online platforms will not replace physical shops, there will be fewer bricks-and-mortar outlets and they will shift towards providing an experience for the customer rather than just mere transactions.

He added that the shift towards online sales began even before this crisis, but the restrictions imposed to contain the virus will speed up this transformation.

He said: "Online (channels) will play an increasingly important role going forward, especially for retail shops that can serve customers that way.

"But they may still want to retain physical stores for people who want to go and experience that. There are customers who want to try products, ask questions or customise some items.

"The need for businesses to maintain many shopfronts will be (reduced), but they will establish more online sales capabilities, back-end logistics, delivery, e-payment and (related abilities such as) data security (to ensure customer data is safe)."

Mr Chee added that some services, such as haircuts, will still require physical interaction, and that heartland shops will cater to the needs of elderly residents, who prefer to visit physical establishments.

But companies should not delay their digitalisation, or they risk being overtaken by competition, he warned.

Shops shuttered during the circuit breaker period in Singapore. Many businesses have taken a hit to their sales and have turned to online channels in a bid to stay afloat.
Shops shuttered during the circuit breaker period in Singapore. Many businesses have taken a hit to their sales and have turned to online channels in a bid to stay afloat. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

He told the event organised by Nanyang Polytechnic's Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (NYP-SIRS): "This crisis will accelerate the process of differentiating enterprises which will survive and those who will not.

MORE ONLINE CAPABILITIES

The need for businesses to maintain many shopfronts will be (reduced), but they will establish more online sales capabilities, back-end logistics, delivery, e-payment and (related abilities such as) data security (to ensure customer data is safe).

MR CHEE HONG TAT, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, on the shift from physical to online stores.

"Previously, we have focused on adopting technology to improve productivity, reduce labour reliance and enhance customer service. These are still relevant.

"But the Covid-19 pandemic has added one more priority - using technology to enable businesses to operate safely while accessing new sources of revenue and finding new ways of serving their customers."

Initiatives such as the retail e-commerce booster package launched in April aim to help retailers use online platforms to reach customers locally and overseas, while the SMEs Go Digital programme provides a suite of solutions for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) at various stages of their transformation.

But small enterprises still face many challenges.

Mr Wong Hing Kong, director of the Unidbox Hardware chain, said: "At the beginning, we were unable to comprehend the hype about digital transformation. What is it and how do we embark on it?"

His online store also did not bring in significant sales but that changed when staff went for training with NYP-SIRS and learnt the skills needed to manage an online store.

Mr Yeo from FMAS added: "It is time for many businesses to take a step and attend training to get exposure before embarking on digital transformation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2020, with the headline 'Businesses speed up move into digital space'. Subscribe