S'pore department stores going digital even as 11.11 online sales expected to break records

Retailers identified the viral pandemic as driving them to expand their online presence and activities. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Department stores and other bricks-and-mortar shops here are riding the online shopping wave, which has swelled more than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak has been held partly responsible for the impending closure of retail stores, such as stalwart Robinsons. But it has also ignited an e-commerce boom, with online sales in November expected to go through the roof.

Department stores Isetan and Marks & Spencer have started selling their products on online shopping site Lazada for the very first time this year and are also participating in its 11.11 event on Wednesday (Nov 11).

Metro, which made its Lazada debut on Black Friday last year, will be offering Singles' Day promotions on the platform for the first time this year as well.

Meanwhile, BHG launched its own shopping site in June, with 11.11 and Black Friday sales planned.

Black Friday falls on Nov 27 this year.

Retailers identified the viral pandemic - which reached Singapore in January - as driving them to expand their online presence and activities.

"With social-distancing measures encouraging less contact, customer shopping habits have changed rapidly from the outset of the pandemic, so we knew it was imperative to develop our online offering," said Marks & Spencer, which is also offering Black Friday and Singles' Day discounts on Lazada for the first time this year.

"The trend towards digital has been accelerated, and most importantly working habits have been transformed, so we adapted and pivoted our business model to meet our customer shopping preferences."

Mr Amos Tan, a senior lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic's School of Business, said that reduced footfall due to Covid-19 at physical shops and stores still having to pay rent, made jumping on the online shopping bandwagon a sensible move.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has given people time to pick up the habit of online shopping and once they realise they do not need to go down to a store, there is no turning back," Mr Tan added.

The outbreak has also nudged some stores further in their ongoing digital shift.

Metro said it has focused on e-commerce and selling across multiple channels for more than five years to meet customers' evolving needs.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend, and we expect this online boom to continue," the retailer said.

Online shopping has boomed here due to the pandemic, with online shopping platforms expecting to register new sales highs.

Between February and April, Shopee's sales here increased 200 times. The platform also recorded a 20-fold increase of Singapore users year-on-year.

Qoo10's 11.11 sales volume is projected to jump between 25 and 35 per cent this year from a year ago, marking a new sales high in the shopping platform's decade-long history.

Lazada, which has been in Singapore for seven years, raked in hundreds of millions in sales in June, breaking its previous highest monthly sales figure that was recorded last November.

"We are confident that this year's 11.11 will shatter last year's 11.11 records," said a Lazada spokesman, adding that it is also seeing over three times more sellers participating in its 11.11 sales this year compared to 2019.

To prepare for the expected surge in sales for Singles' Day, Shopee has enhanced its mobile app by adding auction and polling features to make Shopee Live sessions - where users can promote products in livestreams - more engaging for consumers.

Logistics provider Ninja Van, which processes parcels ordered via e-commerce sites, has more than doubled its usual manpower, as parcel volume is set to triple this Singles' Day compared with previous years.

The digital shift comes amid retail sales taking a beating this year due to Covid-19.

Latest government figures show that for eight months since February, monthly retail sales excluding motor vehicles have been down from a year ago.

Department stores were among the worst hit, with sales falling 39.8 per cent in September from the year before.

For stores like BHG, entering the e-commerce space is a way to connect the online shopping experience with purchasing items in the physical shop.

"Customers can choose to have their items delivered to their doorsteps, or collect (from the Bugis Junction outlet) within four hours, with our new Click and Collect service," said BHG.

Other bricks-and-mortar establishments have also moved online.

Coffee chain Killiney Singapore and bakery Bake Inc began hawking their coffee packs and baked goods respectively on Qoo10 this year for the first time. They will also be offering Singles' Day promotions.

Bake Inc, which has been around for 15 years, said it never really explored selling its products online in the past until its pineapple tarts garnered online attention.

"We had thoughts of going online but didn't really have many resources," said its digital marketing manager, Ms Lorraine Aw.

Then Covid-19 hit and it became apparent the bakery had to go online. Bake Inc applied for a government grant to help it sell and promote its goods on Qoo10.

But going digital does not necessarily mean retailers are abandoning their physical stores.

Department stores like Tangs, Metro and BHG, as well as consumer electronics retailers Courts and Harvey Norman, will have sales events this month in their physical stores on top of those on online platforms.

Sports equipment retailer Under Armour, which began selling on Lazada only this year, said that it will take a while for shoppers to return to physical stores in pre-Covid-19 numbers.

However, the retailer opened a new store in Parkway Parade and re-opened its Orchard Central outlet in August and October respectively.

Under Armour said that to meet customers' needs and expectations both online and offline presence is required.

For some consumers, whether they shop online or in physical stores depends on the products. Housewife Julie Loh, 54, plans to buy a Xiaomi robot vacuum cleaner online during the Singles' Day sales event because it is convenient.

But she added that for big-ticket items such as mattresses and luxury goods, she will go to physical stores to buy them during the sales event to verify their quality.

"I don't want to buy something and have to return it if I don't like it," said Ms Loh.

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