When the Covid-19 pandemic reached Singapore earlier this year, home-grown online grocer Zairyo was better prepared than most other retail businesses.
For years, the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME), which specialises in freshly-imported food products from Japan, has been steadily improving its digital operations, such as its website's ordering functions, standing it in good stead during the circuit breaker period from April to June 2020. Yet it, too, was caught off-guard by a sudden surge in digital sales during that period.
"The only challenge that really threw us off was the crazy surge of orders and demand that we couldn't accept on our website due to our limited pool of delivery drivers," says Mr Thomas Po, 36, who co-founded Zairyo with his wife Ms Amanda Tan, 31, in 2014.
The pair quickly solved the problem by getting on board a second online food delivery platform - GrabFood - in May. It had joined Foodpanda earlier in January.
"We streamlined a list of our everyday products and bestsellers to be listed on these channels, so that we could take advantage of their riders to deliver items to customers who needed them on short notice. Everybody wins!" says Ms Tan.
In August 2020, it also received a shot in the arm with a $2,500 payout from the new Digital Resilience Bonus (DRB) initiative by IMDA. The initiative was introduced in June 2020 as part of the Fortitude Budget and is in addition to the assistance provided under the SMEs Go Digital programme (see box) launched in 2017.
Eligible enterprises that have adopted pre-defined categories of digital solutions by June 30, 2021 can receive one-time cash payouts of up to $10,000. Zairyo qualified for its payout by using InvoiceNow (a nationwide e-invoicing network), PayNow Corporate (a funds transfer service), and other qualified digital solutions.
"More than 70 per cent of our invoices are now sent electronically via InvoiceNow, which saves us time and eliminates the manual processes of printing and filing the documents. It also helps us receive payments faster," says Ms Tan.
Zairyo used its bonus to defray its online marketing costs as consumers shift their purchasing behaviours from offline to online. More digital improvements are in the works: It is installing an automated inventory tracking system and aims to complete this by November 2020.
"Since the start of the Covid-19 situation, one of our main challenges has been inventory management. We now have much more inventory going in and out than we're used to, so we want to track this more effectively," says Mr Po.
Digital solutions to overcome challenges
While many retail businesses hopped onto the digital bandwagon during the pandemic, the husband-and-wife team had already turned to digital solutions in 2016 to help them accomplish more with less.
"We realised the importance of digitalisation when we doubled our revenue in our third year and began to run into huge bottlenecks," says Mr Po. "Like many small businesses, we were using Excel spreadsheets and Word documents to keep track of our accounts, but this became more difficult to manage as we grew."
In 2016, Zairyo invested in an online accounting software, to create, send and track invoices and bills more easily, slashing the time spent on accounts by three-quarters.
"The software has made life much easier for my team because we can check information about our sales from anywhere. It also alerts us to payments that are due and reduces human error by about 80 per cent. We can also track key metrics such as our gross profit in real time," says Mr Po.
Zairyo has recorded seven-figure revenues since 2016 and grown to a seven-member team. Its employees recently received new laptops after the SME tapped on the Productivity Solutions Grant (PSG) from the SMEs Go Digital programme.
Zairyo's successful migration of its accounts onto the cloud-based accounting platform gave it the confidence to revamp its website the following year, in 2017. Among other things, the new website plugged a gap which had been bothering the team for some time.
With many of its fresh food products air-flown from Japan, Zairyo needed a website that would generate delivery date options based on each item's cut-off order date. The standard e-commerce platform that Zairyo used previously did not allow for such customisation.
"If customers missed the deadline, we had to manually follow up with them to find out if they wanted to change their delivery date or cancel their order, and wait for them to reply, causing many problems for our back-end team and makes it a hassle for consumers," explains Ms Tan.
The new website, created with the help of a web design firm and support from the PSG, adjusts and displays the earliest possible delivery date depending on the items in the customer's shopping cart, among other improvements.
Zairyo is also an early adopter of cashless payment modes. It uses PayNow Corporate for business-to-business transactions and is working with its bank to implement seamless PayNow QR transactions, as well as integrate the bank's payment gateway for credit card payments.
With more people shopping online these days, Zairyo's sales orders quadrupled between January and June 2020 compared to the same period last year.
"The new website is much more functional and gives our customers a much better shopping experience. On the backend, our team can also fulfil orders more efficiently," Ms Tan says.
Leverage the IMDA's SMEs Go Digital programme
For other SMEs in the food services and retail sectors considering digitalisation projects, Ms Tan has this piece of advice: Find a trusted vendor, be very specific about your needs and work closely with them.
"We're very lucky to be in Singapore where there is a very high level of support for SMEs to digitalise and lots of information online, such as on IMDA's website, on how to get started. Make use of the help available and go digital."
If you are from the food services or retail sector, find out how you can go digital and receive the DRB one-time auto-payouts of up to $10,000. Visit imda.gov.sg/DRBonus or contact your nearest SME Centre or participating bank (DBS, OCBC or UOB) for assistance.