, Singapore

Delivering the ultimate retail experience: How tech steers the future of shopping in Asia

Omnichannel remains crucial for business operations, whilst AI is proven to be useful in front and back-end.

Asian retailers will have to catch up with tech-driven market shifts to stay competitive and relevant in a constantly evolving sector, according to industry leaders who spoke during the Retail Asia Summit on 16 November.

Shin Thant Aung, a director at YCP Solidiance, said the retail sector in Southeast Asia has evolved dramatically over the past three decades, growing from being a market dominated by brick-and-mortar shops in the 1990s to the present times where omnichannel retail strategies are involved.

“Omni channel means combining online and offline experience with multiple channels. It is very important that you are doing that very seamless journey from the offline-online, from the customer awareness (as well as) the change into a digital transformation,” he said.

As e-commerce continues to gather steam and internet penetration keeps on increasing, his presentation showed the global digital revolution market in retail is projected to more than double from a $700B industry to a $1.7B market between 2023 and 2028.

Shin identified the ever-changing consumption behaviour as another major driver for the sector, with the trend now shifting towards convenience as well as small but frequent shopping trips.

Fueling the retail digital revolution further are technological advancements like artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and extended reality, although he noted that retailers must choose the most appropriate tech to integrate into their businesses.

Shin said AI in the retail segment is projected to grow to become a $31B market by 2028, more than four times its $8B size this year as more retailers integrate AI to supercharge their business operations, from data analytics, inventory and supply chain management, all the way to personalised shopping experience.

Blockchain tech, meanwhile, can aid in supply chain management and in ensuring transactions are secure, while extended reality could help customers visualise products in an immersive digital experience.

“You will be using the technology at a more competitive rate in the future, but you cannot avoid using the technology. Most of the retailers are thinking that all technology is a myth, but no technology is not a myth, it is you who decides which technologies can be used,” he said.


Customer, Staff in Focus

On the ground, Minerva Tng, director of customer care for APAC at Foot Locker, shared how they used an AI chatbot to respond to customers’ general inquiries faster and address the high volume of redundant simple tasks.

Call centres then handle complicated queries and there is an AI in place to help agents improve their responses, she said.

At Decathlon Singapore, Arjun Mutreja, the firm’s head of people, noted how they make sure their staff stay competitive through upskilling and reskilling while making sure the workforce understands the rationale and benefits of automation.

Tng added that: “It's important that everybody recognizes that change is the only constant. What they need to have is a very open mindset and be ability to embrace new technologies, they need to understand that new technologies are not here to replace the workers, it's rather to give them an additional skill set to make them more productive, more involved, to deliver their work better.”

On the consumers’ front, Thomas Meier, creative director at dwp, touched on how tech advancements influenced shoppers to demand for quicker delivery times, showrooming and better vendor-buyer relationships.

“Technology has evolved so much we evolved with it,” he stressed.


Addressing decision paralysis

Risa de Sagun, strategic partnerships development manager for APAC commerce at Google, said their recent research found most shoppers struggle with decision paralysis after getting overwhelmed with the abundance of options and information available on the internet. 

De Sagun said concerns about misinformation and potential fraud are also dissuading shoppers from proceeding with their online purchases right away – a trend exacerbated by the already weak sentiment of consumers on the economy currently.

“We found out that one in three consumers in Southeast Asia do not make that purchase because they feel anxious or they're worried that it's not the right choice,” she said. 

“The confidence gap is growing, consumers are struggling to get out of it and it's an opportunity if you're a merchant or a retailer to help them,” she added.


Transitioning from bricks to clicks

Diving deeper into the omnichannel strategy, Rajesh Grover, group vice president for digital and omnichannel at Kanmo Group, said such an approach has been revolutionising the way brands interact with customers.

Firms, however, are struggling in executing it due to several factors, including lack of commitment from top management, internal customers, and internal teams, as well as poor choice of tech platforms, he said.

During his speech, Grover shared a five-step framework for executing that strategy, starting with the approach that responds to how customers want to buy instead of how vendors want to sell the products.

He also emphasised the importance of “aligning all teams with the omnichannel way of thinking about the customer,” at the same time existing internal systems and processes are being evaluated to identify gaps and map out the ideal processes.

The last two steps, building a roadmap and hearing the feedback from customers, are crucial to executing an omnichannel strategy successfully, according to Grover.

“Focus on the customer, the internal customer, internal systems and processes, start building your roadmap in the most realistic way with the right tech partner and then (hear back from) the customer,” he concluded.


Buyers bank with brands

Speaking at the last panel of the Retail Asia Summit, Ceridwen Choo, managing director for payments and innovation at DCS Card Centre talked about how retailers need to adopt embedded finance where they can enable financial services within their environment, reducing dependence on financial institutions like banks.

As customers are now dictating how they want to consume finance, Choo said having embedded payment and loan systems in the business can improve customers’ engagement with the brand while retailers gain access to crucial customer data.

Veljko Vasic, CEO of HolyWally, said modern technology now allows retailers to set up their own branded wallets with various features in a matter of days while providing a solution to some of the biggest challenges faced by the industry.

“Now you (retailer) can see all this data and you can now offer them products that they need that are tied to their financial journey. The most important thing is to (provide) a larger payment solution to solve a certain problem, rather than to just have a wallet,” Vasic said.

The same goes for other financial tech products. For instance, Choo said cashless payments powered by RFID cards in stores help companies plug the labour shortages in Singapore currently.

Beyond convenience stores, tech helps immensely in solving manpower shortage issues in malls, while providing landlords with crucial shoppers’ data according to Selena Chua, CEO, WCT Malls Management. 

“Technology plays an even bigger role in terms of giving us more detail. The more detail we have, the better we can ensure that the shopping mall has the right kind of tenant mix, the right kind of tenant, whereby the tenant sells products that shoppers want and at the right price,” she said.

Overall, Benjamin Chin Fook Chuan, managing director at ECCO Asia Pacific (Singapore), pointed out how technology is improving the retail sector’s entire ecosystem, but choosing the right tech with the right people will make all the difference.

“Therefore, if more landlords look at technology, then we as retailers can focus a lot more attention on just making good products and serving our customers and delighting our customers,” he said.

“It's not just about technology, but how technology matters for your brand. It’s also about having smart people that make good choices about how to use technology,” he added.

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