Important for retail sector to digitalise to emerge stronger from pandemic: Gan Kim Yong

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong and Minister of State for Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling during a visit to Charles & Keith's headquarters in Tai Seng on Aug 24, 2021. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Home-grown footwear and accessories retailer Charles & Keith was already selling its products online, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it accelerated the company's digitalisation process.

The company now not only provides training online for its 7,000 staff worldwide, but it also hosts cyber sales-pitches to wholesale buyers from around the world.

This was revealed during a visit on Tuesday (Aug 24) by Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong and Minister of State for Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling to the company's headquarters in Tai Seng.

Speaking to the media virtually after the visit, Mr Gan said: "The retail sector has been undergoing transformation even before Covid-19, but Covid-19 has accelerated the transformation process.

"Digitalisation also helps the retail sector to be more visible, and to be more efficient in their operations, as well as provide a lot of flexibility."

Mr Brandon Ong, assistant general manager of Charles & Keith, provided an example of this transformation at the company.

He said before the pandemic, wholesale buyers would flock to its headquarters in Tai Seng four times a year.

To showcase its products, the company would set up an elevated runway on the seventh floor of the building, and throughout the day, models would showcase the latest designs and strut down the runway for the buyers.

This was halted in March last year. But in the same month, Charles & Keith moved to an online platform where buyers can log in to get a 360 degree view of the products, such as shoes and accessories.

Designers would also conduct live streaming sessions to interact with the buyers.

Speaking to the media, Mr Gan said that while the journey may be challenging, the Government will provide necessary support. But businesses will also have to invest in upgrading skills for their employees, especially in honing their digital skills.

At Charles & Keith Group, the e-commerce teams have been equipped to use an online system that will allow them to monitor sales worldwide in real time, the brand's products that people are searching for in search engines, and the popularity of the products.

Ms Low noted that training operations for the Charles & Keith Group also took a hit amid the pandemic. She said employees could not travel to other countries to attend training.

"They have put their training online, and now with a touch a button, staff are able to access training courses... Managers will also be able to see the strength and attributes of the staff online, so it really improves operational and manpower efficiency," Ms Low added.

The online training system, which was developed late last year, is now being trialled for Pedro's employees in Singapore. Pedro is a fashion brand under the Charles & Keith Group, selling shoes and accessories.

The retail sector has been battered by the pandemic, with businesses taking a hit to their bottom lines but while grappling with staff and rental costs.

Several rounds of support measures were rolled out to help the beleaguered sector, such as wage subsidies and rental support.

Mr Gan said retailers are "quite realistic" and aware that government support will always be limited.

He added: "I think digitalisation is a key enabling tool, and we would really like to help the retail sector move in that direction... The key for their survival and success is not so much about government financial support.

"It is important for them to bring back the business."

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