Why It Matters

Sell online or be left behind

Brick-and-mortar stores are having a tough time with a weaker retail market. And competition from online stores is not helping.

So if you cannot beat them, why not join them?

Last Thursday, Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) S. Iswaran called for retailers to transform their business - such as by using online channels and engaging shoppers through mobile applications - to help them stay relevant.

This is timely since consumers today can get more shopping options online, often at lower prices, and even have their purchases conveniently delivered to their homes. Up against this new norm - and other challenges such as rising rents, a manpower crunch and competition from regional destinations - it has been a trying time for physical retailers here.

The Singapore Department of Statistics last Thursday also released the retail sales figures for July, which showed that sales, excluding motor vehicles, fell 3 per cent compared with the same month last year. This follows a similar dip in June's figure.

That the two months coincide with the Great Singapore Sale showed that even the country's biggest annual sales event might not have been enough to get shoppers to spend.

Even so, there are opportunities to seize. As Mr Iswaran noted, Asia's middle class is growing and its consumers are getting richer. Asean economies, in particular, are expected to grow faster than the global average and Asian average, he noted.

To tap these opportunities, retailers cannot afford to stick to the status quo. Detailing a government road map up to 2020 to help retailers stay relevant, Mr Iswaran said firms should innovate, be bold in piloting new technology, redesign jobs and expand overseas through e-commerce.

The Government, for its part, will identify possible online platforms for retailers and conduct master classes where they can pick up digital marketing and Web analytics skills, among other initiatives.

The challenge, then, is convincing businesses to step out of their comfort zone. They have to embrace e-commerce - a threat that is also an opportunity - or risk being left behind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'Sell online or be left behind'. Print Edition | Subscribe