From sales floor to live streams: Covid-19 turned this camera-shy Singaporean into an influencer

Skilled in the art of brick-and-mortar retail, Ms Vicky Toh found herself diving head first into the brave new world of selling online when the pandemic hit. As the crisis upends traditional retail models, mastering new digital formats may mean new life or demise for businesses

Ms Vicky Toh joined SK Jewellery Group at the age of 18, and has worked her way up, with her flair for sales, to area manager overseeing operations for seven stores across Singapore. PHOTO: NICKY LOH

Ms Vicky Toh knows what she is good at. She was just 18 years old when she joined SK Jewellery Group as a sales associate, but that was already her second full-time job. Her first had also been in sales. "I think the work suited my personality," she said. "I like building rapport with customers."

Over the next 19 years, she worked her way up the ranks at the home-grown jewellery company, first becoming a floor manager, then an area manager overseeing operations at seven SK Jewellery stores. In this latter role, Ms Toh also makes sure sales staff learn how to connect with customers.

"The most important thing in sales is your attitude - that's what I tell my team," she said. "Some customers come to our stores because they want to browse, and have no intention of buying anything. But if your service as a salesperson strikes a chord with them, they will usually support you by making a purchase."

SPH Brightcove Video
Skilled in the art of brick-and-mortar retail, Ms Vicky Toh found herself diving head first into the brave new world of selling online when the pandemic hit.

With her warm voice and bright smile, it's easy to understand why customers would feel at ease in Ms Toh's presence. In fact, her personable qualities are palpable even through a screen, as evidenced by the Facebook Live sessions she hosted for SK Jewellery during the circuit breaker period.

Before Covid-19 struck, the company had already established its e-commerce presence with its own online store, as well as via Shopee, eCapitaMall and Lazada portals. In April, with all its brick-and-mortar stores closed, it decided to boost sales by entering the brave new world of live streaming, which features hosts showcasing products and allows customers to purchase these products in real time. Ms Toh was one of the staff members tasked with fronting these sessions.

Overcoming mental obstacles

Viewers who tuned in saw her sharing details about precious metals and gemstones, with the deft assurance of someone who has spent years honing her product knowledge. What they didn't see was the way her legs were trembling out of frame, because she was incredibly nervous.

Coming from a company with a family-like culture, Ms Toh was worried Covid-19's impact on job losses would not only affect her, but her colleagues, too. PHOTO: SPH

"I will never forget that feeling," revealed the 37-year-old. "I am shy in front of the camera, and there were a lot of mental hurdles I had to overcome. I'm so used to interacting with customers face to face, and being in front of the camera all by myself felt very different."

As she prepared for her first live stream, Ms Toh battled self-doubt about whether she would be good at this new endeavour. "I am not someone who changes my ways easily," she said candidly. "But Covid-19 had put us in this new environment, and the company was trialing many ideas to help us get through this difficult time. I felt I had to leave my comfort zone. I had to try; I had to change. Hosting these live streams was a big breakthrough for me."

For Ms Toh, bread-and-butter concerns during this precarious period for retail were top of mind. The teenager who had joined SK Jewellery 19 years ago had become a mother of two young children, and expenses for her family include mortgage payments and the salary for their domestic helper. "Of course, I was worried," she shared. "I thought this pandemic was the kind of scenario that would only happen in a drama series."

As the circuit breaker stretched on and stores remained closed, she couldn't help but wonder if the strong customer relationships that she and her colleagues had painstakingly nurtured with their regulars over the years would survive this prolonged pause.

The spectre of retrenchment also loomed. SK Jewellery takes great pride in its family-like company culture, and many of its staff members are long-serving employees like Ms Toh. She had benefited from the company tradition of mentorship from senior staff, and had in turn mentored her younger colleagues. In this close-knit circle, the impact of job loss for some would be keenly felt by all. "I was worried about not just myself, but also my colleagues," she said.

Fortunately, the company has been proactive about meeting the challenges of the moment. At the beginning of the circuit breaker, it launched near-daily online classes for its retail staff so they could improve their product knowledge. It was usually difficult to carve out time for such training when it was business as usual, and now the classes had the added benefit of keeping staff productive while they were waiting out the lockdown at home.

Ms Toh was one of the trainers for these classes, which were conducted via Zoom. When she started rehearsing for her live streaming sessions, this prior experience in online communication helped immensely, she says. She also studied the live streams of popular influencers, and sought feedback from her colleagues.

Although she was not confident in front of the camera, Ms Toh knew she had to battle self-doubt and leave her comfort zone to host live streams on Facebook. PHOTO: SPH

There were plenty of things to worry about, from setting up equipment to the reliability of the Wi-Fi. When Ms Toh was filming the live stream sessions from her home during the circuit breaker, she would also ask her husband to take their children out for walks to ensure a quiet environment.

Various SK Jewellery departments were roped in to execute this initiative. The visual merchandising team, graphics team and company photographers created backdrops, displays and product photos, while the marketing team conceptualised different themes and promotions for each live stream session. Retail staff provided backend support by processing customers' questions and orders, which were sent as Facebook messages during the live streams.

"During each recording, I would always wonder: Is anybody watching?" said Ms Toh. As it turned out, the results were encouraging. SK Jewellery's live streams drew hundreds of views, which in many cases grew to tens of thousands of views over time as these recordings stayed online as Facebook videos.

The live streams, coupled with a virtual concierge service to replicate the offline service experience, kept customers engaged and drove purchases. In fact, SK Jewellery saw a doubling of e-commerce sales compared to pre-Covid days.

New retail landscape

Using live streaming to sell products is one of the new frontiers of both e-commerce and influencer marketing, and the format has flourished during the pandemic. According to the China Netcasting Services Association, live streaming e-commerce is the fastest-growing area of the Internet in China this year. An important contributing factor for this growth is that Chinese platforms such as Taobao Live have developed interfaces that make customer interaction and payment frictionless and fun.

However, for retailers and consumers who are not plugged into the idiosyncratic ecosystem of Chinese tech platforms - and that presently still includes a significant swathe of the world - the mechanics of shopping via live streams are less than ideal. Existing platforms such as Amazon Live are relatively basic in functionality, and new platforms reportedly being developed by the likes of Instagram have not yet been launched.

This can constrain the growth of this promising e-commerce format. SK Jewellery, for instance, uses Facebook Live for its live streams, where customers have to pay for purchases via e-wallet PayNow, then send a screenshot of their confirmed payment to the company through Facebook Messenger.

Aside from clunky platforms, many retailers here face myriad difficulties when it comes to adopting e-commerce. Their challenges range from a lack of resources for investing in new technologies, to gaps in last-mile delivery capabilities.

Helping businesses address these challenges is the Singapore Together Alliance for Action (AfA) on Facilitating Smart Commerce, one of the industry-led coalitions formed by the Singapore government's Emerging Stronger Taskforce. The AfA has worked closely with a diverse range of stakeholders and government agencies to help Singaporean SME retailers pivot their business and adapt to the shifts in Singapore's operating environment due to Covid-19.

Recognising that Covid-19 has caused consumers to adapt to new digital ways of living, working and playing, one of the areas that the AfA is exploring is to pilot online-offline partnership models that demonstrate the convergence of physical and digital commerce, which can be further supported by leveraging high-profile shopping festivals. An example is the CapitaLand x Shopee 11.11 campaign, which had the objective to drive sales, traffic and engagement for six participating CapitaLand malls, through the incorporation of gamification elements.

Thriving on change

In the long run, a hybrid model that combines physical stores with virtual retail experiences can help unlock larger overseas markets for retailers, and help them to build greater resilience in the face of both pandemic-related constraints and changing consumer habits. Making the transition will require creative flair, logistical excellence, and, above all, a willingness to change.

Having served customers face to face for almost two decades, Ms Toh had to overcome her nerves and shyness to sell jewellery virtually. PHOTO: SPH

SK Jewellery Group's executive director, CEO and co-founder Daniel Lim once summed up the company's ethos this way: "We thrive on change." That spirit has served it well during the current crisis. While layoffs have roiled the retail sector, the company has not cut salaries nor retrenched staff. When its stores reopened after the circuit breaker, staff resumed their duties with zeal, armed with more knowledge thanks to their Zoom classes.

Through its experiments in live streaming, the company has also learned useful lessons that it has since applied to new offerings, such as virtual masterclasses and viewing appointments for customers. While viewership for its live streams have declined somewhat with the reopening of its physical stores, the company is continuing to invest in this online format, and now has a dedicated live streaming studio as well as more staff who are trained to host these sessions.

For Ms Toh, one of SK Jewellery's original live stream presenters, this adventure outside her comfort zone has not only given her a greater belief in her adaptability with regard to her rice bowl, but also resulted in some unexpected perks in the form of actual rice. "The other day I was out buying lunch, and the hawker recognised me as a host for the SK Jewellery live stream. She even gave me an extra-large portion of 'economic rice' because of it," she recounted with a laugh.

This is the third in a six-part series on the resilience of Singaporeans, as they band together to seize new opportunities in a world changed by Covid-19.
In partnership with the Emerging Stronger Taskforce.

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