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“Enabling Data-Driven Digital Precincts of the Future” with Siti Fairuz | Episode 9

Siti Fairuz Mahfud is the Head of Digital Transformation Office at the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI). She shares with Jun and Imran on The Future of Retail Asia Podcast about her experiences with helping merchants and businesses going digital. She also touched on some of the campaigns she carried out with merchants in the Kampong Glam area, namely the Go Makan at Kampong Glam campaign and the recent Ramadan Online Bazaar. Jun, Imran, and Fai also bounced ideas surrounding how a digital precinct might look and what the Chamber might need to enable that.

The Future of Retail Asia, now streaming on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. View the video and full transcript below. Enjoy!

Episode 9: “Enabling Data-Driven Digital Precincts of the Future” with Siti Fairuz

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IMRAN: Welcome back to another episode of The Future of Retail Asia! My name is Imran.

JUN: And I’m Jun. Previously, we have guests from Shopping Malls, Retailer/ Brand, Marketing companies, there are some comments saying that they wonder how Chambers play a role in this industry? We hear you, so joining us today is Siti Fairuz, the Head of Digital Transformation Office from Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry! Welcome!

FAI: Hi guys, thanks for having me here!

IMRAN: Fai has been part of Singapore Malay Chamber for almost 4 years. She started off as the Head of Corporate Services, and then took on the mantle of Head of Digital Transformation Office 2 years ago, right before the pandemic hit. What timing! Her role in the Malay Chamber now is to help digitalise merchants, especially in the Kampong Glam precinct. Before Covid struck, they expanded to businesses outside of Kampong Glam, helping them digitalise both the front end and back end to allow them to tide through the tough period. Fai thanks for coming down again! Maybe Jun you would like to start off.

JUN: Wow! There is actually I want to start with. When Covid hit the entire market, you are just then, just going into the digital transformation office. And then suddenly the pandemic hit the entire market, lockdown is everywhere. We saw there was a huge drop in the merchant’s sales by then, when the pandemic hit. What is your intention, reaction at first? How did you feel knowing a lot of merchants that you know and you are supporting as a Chamber suddenly close down their stores or drop their sales like crazy?

FAI: I became the Head of Digital Transformation OFfice before the pandemic hit. We were already working with the merchants to digitalise, helping them adopt digital solutions. And then once the Covid hit, and you know that digitalisation is the way to go next after the pandemic hit. It kind of, blessing in disguise for me, it made my job easier in terms of getting them to change their mind to going digital. Because they realised that the only way to go next, one of the ways to go next after Covid-19 hit is to go digital. This is especially so for merchants that are traditional merchants, where it’s a bit hard for us to change their minds, or change their mindsets about going e-commerce or using digital payments. I took this advantage to tell them, you know, it’s a need for you to go digital, especially during this period. It is time for you, like now is the best time for you to go digital. That kind of helps in the whole situation. I think I am quite honoured to be the one assisting these members, because these members, they go from traditional brick and mortar stores to going online. Being the one who assists them to do that and seeing them grow in the digital space is I think something that makes my work more fulfilling.

JUN: This was like, completely unprecedented. You mentioned that a lot of these are traditional businesses. Some of them have been running their businesses for decades the same way. And it is something new. We saw it unfolding in the last 2 years. It was something no one had anticipated, no one had experienced before. When it first hit, and then the circuit breaker came in, what was SMCCI’s initial reaction? How did you guys think about getting the intel on the ground and putting together your first formula of response?

FAI: As a chamber with businesses as members, I think it is important to note that these businesses, most of the businesses are hit from the Covid-19 pandemic. What we do is that we identified first the industries that are hit the most. So industries like FnB, weddings and events, tourism. And we put forth plans to ensure that we provide relevant medium term support to assist them to get through the challenging times. One of the ways that SMCCI did to help businesses, our members to overcome these challenges is we first set up the Covid-19 response team within the chamber. This is a go to resource for members to seek assistance in overcoming the challenges of Covid-19. And members can leverage upon the resources from the Covid-19 response team which includes access to grants, access to government agencies, and access to shared resources to help them overcome the different challenges that they faced during Covid-19 period.

IMRAN: I remember those times actually. It sounds very nice and very well put together. But I remember in those times Pak Farid, the president, who was endlessly meeting with government officials, with the press, convening meetings, looking at the response, getting surveys out, getting town hall outs. We had the chamber staff, we had the SMC staff going out on the ground, having an open office. Anyone got problem, come and visit us, come and call us. I remember that hectic time trying to figure out what to do, so how has it evolved since then? I think now the pandemic is now more than a year and a half into play. How has that response from that initial, we need to put together a committee, we need to put together an initial response, we need to figure out what the impact is? How has that evolved into the actual programmes that are now in place a year and a half later?

FAI: Initially, we had a lot of engagement with the businesses. First we need to identify what their pain points exactly before we come up with a solution for their problems or their challenges that they faced. We have a lot of programmes like the discussions that they want, they want connect, where we get members feedback, where we interact with members and ask what are the challenges they face. We even have member consultation sessions with our president Pak Farid, and our deputy president, Abu Bakar, where they can share intimate details on the problems that they face, which they feel that they might not want to share with the rest during the engagement sessions. We gather this information that we get from the members, and then we think about how to create programmes to help them overcome these challenges. After identifying that pain points of the members, then we kind of come up with different programmes. Right now, we have the MBFP program. This is the Macro Business Foundation programme, because we realised that during the pandemic, one of the industries, or one of the groups that was hit was the home-based business. Last year, if you remember, the HBBs, they couldn’t operate their HBBs from home. That was in April last year, and it caused quite a bit of unhappiness.

IMRAN: Because of the social distancing, delivery regulations and all that.

FAI: We recognised that HBB is also an important part of our business community, where we should see what are the problems that they face. So now we have a programme just for HBBs to help them get their businesses further, improve their businesses further. This is one of the programmes that we have for them at the moment.

IMRAN: It is a lot about understanding their pain points, and identify where we can come together and work together. You are sharing about HBBs, but I know within the chamber context you have about half or more than half of the businesses actually being food businesses or even retail businesses as well.

JUN: Very interesting, when we were interviewing guests before, we believed one thing is that everyone needs to come together. Just now we mentioned that the President has a lot of meetings with the government, and you have a lot of meetings with the merchants to try and figure out. Just very curious, how Malay Chamber engaged with the government especially, and bring all these parties together, and worked with different industry partners to help the SMEs.

FAI: As a Chamber, we are an important middle person between the businesses and the government, because we have many businesses on the ground, but everyone can’t reach out to the government at the same time. We act as that middle person to link that bridge between businesses and the government. We worked together with the different government agencies to assist in the reopening of a certain industry. For example, the wedding industry is one of the biggest hit industries during Covid-19. We worked with the relevant government agency to reopen the wedding industry. Where initially there was no wedding to be held in the void deck. We worked out a solution for our wedding industry businesses where we opened up the wedding industry where they are able to have weddings at the void deck, and what we do as a chamber is that we gather the pain points of the businesses and then bring it to the government, and from the government level they will tell us, if you want to open it’s fine, but we need the businesses to do certain requirements, for example the SMMs, they need to be 50 per zone and all that thing. What we did was we had a training session for the wedding industry businesses where we set up the whole wedding set up at Landmark Hotel, and invited all our wedding businesses, wedding members to come and explain to them. This is how it should be, you need to place the entrance here, the entrance needs to be separated from the exit. Very deep dive and very...

IMRAN: Very specific measures right. Actually this is a very important point, because individually a wedding operator would never be able to get Enterprise Singapore for example to say, okay I will open up for you, but this is a very unique position that the Malay Chamber, or any of the associations could actually have. Because we actually have the ear of the Government as well as the collective inputs of the industry. I think that is very interesting to actually be able to enforce, or actually influence how policies are made, or how Government assistance is rendered. We will probably touch on those topics again, with regards to things like digitisation and precincts later. I thought this cannot go understated, or unnoticed, because this is a very important function of the chamber, as far as I know.

FAI: Yes, yes. I agree because you know, we are assisting the businesses to open up so that they can continue their business. I feel that these are important steps we take to get them there, because if, like you mentioned, let’s say the businesses go direct to the Government, they are not going to say okay we are going to open up for you. But if we have steps in place, measures in place. And we make sure these businesses do follow them and they have proper SMM in place, I think then that’s where everyone can work together to open up the industry, to open up the economy.

IMRAN: And the coming together is not just the merchants as well as the Government. I think we are also talking about the bigger players, the corporations like the banks, or even like the big tech players. From what I know, the Chamber has been working together in the last couple of years tirelessly with partners like Shoppe, Bungose, Grab, Shopback, GoJek. These are the few at the top of my hands that you have direct partnerships with, and even have helped the merchants list on. How could we all work together, let’s say before we go into some of those specific programmes, let’s say on a programme basis, how could the government, the bigger companies, and then the SMEs, work in tandem together.

FAI: The government is trying to help the businesses as well, trying to assist the businesses. But they do not have direct interaction, or direct connection to the business, and that’s where the chamber comes in. And we, the chamber, we are on the ground, we know how the businesses work, and what would work best for them. And their pain points they are facing. Between the government, the chamber, and the businesses, and also the different tech partners, the banks, or the different tech companies, we are also working with them. How we should bring them all together is that as a chamber, since we know what are the different requirements that these different stakeholders want to achieve, we come up with a specific solution that can benefit everyone. The government, they want businesses to thrive and sustain during this period, and the businesses also want to increase their sales together, more customer base, and these industry players, what they want is also to reach out to more people to use their solutions. So what we do is that we come up with a specific campaign or programme that can bridge all these three players together, which would benefit everyone of them.

IMRAN: And it creates a win-win-win, because it would make sense for Grab to work with a partner or player like let’s say FairPrice, but it wouldn’t make sense for Grab to talk to 100 minimarts directly one by one.

JUN: Yes, yes. Can’t agree more. A lot of people will forget how important, just now you mention, the chamber as a bridge. Really, last mile is always the most difficult part, tech solution company tries to help the merchant, and the government tries to help the merchant. But just now Imran mentioned, it is easy to help them to solve or help them to work with corporate, but it is very hard for them to work with fragmented, individual merchants, one by one by one. There was a very big campaign last year, the Kampong Glam, everybody saw on the news, the Government and a lot of tech parties are trying to work together. It is actually through the Singapore Malay Chamber for this programme. Can you share a little bit more about this programme?

FAI: So last year we worked with ShopBack to come up with a campaign at Kampong Glam, it’s called the Go Makan at Kampong Glam campaign, where we have customers who accumulate a certain amount spent at specific Kampong Glam merchants who participated in this campaign during the promotional period, where they stand a chance to win something. So this entices the customers to use the platform, which is ShopBack, and it increases the visibility of the merchants as well. I think it is not just benefitting one party, it also benefits the merchants, the tech partner, which is ShopBack, and also the customers.

IMRAN: Not bad la, can get CashBack. Also can stand a chance to win something. Not bad lah.

FAI: Yeah, yeah. We are also trying to increase the visibility of this merchant through the ShopBack platform. With this, when they are shopping online, when they go to the app and see, oh I didn’t know this shop exists. But now they know. It kind of increases the visibility and awareness, and this is what we want, and this is done through digital platforms. With the use of technology, with the use of digital solutions, you can reach that marketing for the businesses. For businesses also, it would entice them to get on board ShopBack, on this digital platform, to get their sales up. Because when more people know about their shop, people will be going there to spend, and this is what they want, they want to increase their footfall. That is one of the main aims of this whole campaign. They want to increase the footfall at Kampong Glam. This was a campaign before the pandemic, so we are trying to get more people to not just spend at Kampong Glam, but we want them to spend a longer time at Kampong Glam area, at the Kampong Glam precinct. So the campaign is actually, if they spend across multiple merchants, it is not just one merchant. We are increasing the visibility of more merchants, and I think this is the first precinct level campaign that a Chamber has done with a tech partner. And I think it was quite a successful campaign. Overall, they reached more than, close to 2000 accounts on ShopBack platform. The amount spent accumulated during the campaign also increased than the usual previous months.

IMRAN: One thing that was quite interesting is that we always looked within the retail ecosystems that we worked around things like cross selling, the customer journey, and expanding the customer spend. We are not talking about spending in one stall, but in multiple stalls as well.

JUN: I think this is also a very interesting campaign to change people’s mindset, because traditional businesses, especially in the same area, they will think the store beside me is my competitor. But through this actually unlocks, that we should work together, although we are in the same area, we need to work together and actually try to bring the footfall into this area. And actually try to make some campaign, you need to go shop A and shop, and go shop B and shop. So another campaign that came to my mind is the Ramadan Online Bazaar.

IMRAN: Oh my god we haven’t had that. This is something, one big thing that we missed.

JUN: Yes, yes. So maybe you can share with us more about that campaign?

FAI: Okay. That campaign we did this year, during the Ramadan period, because as you know last year, we didn’t have the Ramada bazaar, and this year there is no physical bazaar again. But we don’t want to let down the spirits of Singaporeans who celebrate Hari Raya. We want to tell them hey doesn’t mean there is no physical bazaar, there is no Hari Raya mood. So I think that’s one of the reasons why we want to do this. And also to assist members and businesses who were affected, because some of these businesses, they only operate during the Ramadan period, in the Bazaar. So we give them a platform for these businesses to continue the Ramadan Bazaar, which they had done for the past 5, 10 years, but doing it online. And also I feel it’s a step to making it a yearly thing. Since we don’t know how long this is going to be, it’s good for us to start somewhere. To get all these Bazaar merchants online, and they can continue it. We kind of kickstart it first for them, and then after this they realise, I think it’s good, I am getting a good response.

IMRAN: A very key success factor that I saw was that you were actually listed on the app, for example on Grab and Shopee by as a tab themselves, on the homepage.

FAI: For this campaign, we worked with GrabMart, Shopee and Bungkus for different types of products. For GrabMart, it’s groceries and marts. For Shoppe it’s on the retail side. And Bungkus for hot food, FnBs. What was very special is that I would say one of a kind campaign that we did with tech giants like Shopee and Grab, where they actually gave us dedicated tiles on their app. I would say almost everywhere has a Grab app.

IMRAN: Very expensive real estate.

FAI: Everyone has Grab app on their phone, Shopee app on their phone. When they open the app, they can actually see Bazaar Kita on the platform. It brings us to a national level campaign. Same as ShopBack, it increases the visibility of the merchants who joined this campaign. That is what we are aiming for.

IMRAN: So in terms of bottom line, what was the impact?

FAI: We managed during the two months campaign period, the total sales was more than $600,000.

IMRAN: And this is involving how many merchants?

FAI: There are 120-130 merchants altogether.

IMRAN: So from 0 onboarding 130 merchants, then within the Ramadan Bazaar Online for the first time getting $600k sales for two months, which is amazing. I don’t think this is something that has ever been done before.

FAI: I was kind of surprised by the results also. Like you mentioned, we never had something like this before. So we really don’t know, are we doing this right, are we doing this wrong. It’s like we will try our best to see what’s the best approach to this. And I would say it worked, because we assisted more than 120 merchants to get online. It also brings up this campaign festive feeling for everyone. I guess it’s a win-win for all.

JUN: So very interesting, thanks for the audience, because previously when we were inviting the shopping mall, marketing teams. We will always focus on the merchants inside the shopping malls. But I think in this case, everyone is very curious, how a Chamber can help during the pandemic. And we have a chance to talk to Siti here. And we realised that Kampong Glam, it’s a shopping mall! There are 600 plus merchants inside this area. If you are able to unlock this data, if we are able to use this. We mentioned about, we run a campaign, and it already showed them that when they do not fight each other, and they work together, and bring some of the tech vendors in, they really get ther result. That is really very interesting.

IMRAN: Right, he mentioned a very few good points. One is that Kampong Glam has 600 merchants. If you look at all the other precincts that the Malay Chamber has influence over, including your Joo Chiat and Katong and all the other places as well. I think there are many opportunities there. We are talking about also, how do we aggregate together and actually influence and work with government agencies. And work with partners to increase sales. So let’s talk about, let’s say, your wishlist. If you are looking at Kampong Glam as a precinct, if you want to enable them digitally as a digital precinct. What do you think is your wishlist, or your pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to be able to do with the merchants at the end of the day?

FAI: I think for precincts like Kampong Glam, one important, key aspect that the Chamber would need, or rather would best to have to help us assist in creating programme or platform for them is data. Things like the shop at Kampong Glam, they are mostly, I would say, maybe half is like traditional shops, selling the cloths, carpets. Where they might not be online. So there are certain data that we are not able to get from them. So if we are able to get certain data, which would help us in curating a certain platform which would best be for them, specific to their type of business, then it will not just benefit the chamber, but also the businesses.

IMRAN: For example, if I am a restaurant, and I am in Kampong Glam, I know how I am performing as a restaurant versus other restaurants in the area, so that I know my own performance. And can take a look is it my overheads, is it my marketing. Should I be thinking of working more with the chamber, or with Grab or Shopee as a partner. And look at ways to improve my business with decisions. The other part was that you were talking about them being traditional businesses. Some of them, for example, may not have updated POS systems, for example. Which is one of the things that the Chamber does help provide, in terms of pre-approved solutions. What other steps is the Chamber taking on now in helping the merchants on a practical level take the next step?

FAI: I think for these specific types of merchants, the more traditional merchants and businesses. The key is simplicity. What we need to do is that we have to introduce them to the simple digital solutions first, the low hanging fruits like digital payments, rather than getting them to start off with something very huge and that would kind of throw them off. What we do at Digital Transformation Office at the Chamber is that we will recommend simple digital tools, especially for traditional merchants who still are not using any e-payments. Why not we start off first using something simple like e-payments, and then from there, they will realise. Oh actually it’s not so bad, I don’t have to use so many gadgets or whatever. It’s still okay. From there, they will start to be open to other bigger tech solutions, or technology. I think that is what we are trying to achieve, getting them to start off simple, and start off small, before growing bigger in their digital transformation of their business.

IMRAN: Certainly has been forced in the last 2 years with Covid, with safe distancing..

FAI: Yes, yes.

IMRAN: Even the Government putting in the unified PayNow and QR Code to make it easier for merchants to onboard. I think from our side as Aimazing, we will be very interested to work with people like Chambers and Kampong Glam and various precincts all over the world, and look at how can we digitise a whole precinct. How can we put together the data insights, and be the first to share these insights or work with the Government to say hey when covid hits or when lockdown happens, we are affected by X% sales in real time. I think these are things that previously wasn’t available, in terms of data. I think we are kind of at the end of the interview, we have a couple of takeaway questions that we hope you can share with the audience. The first would be, what would be your advice to businesses that are listening in today. Any of the retail or food businesses listening today, what would be your one piece of advice for them?

FAI: Now, seeing how the industry has evolved, ever since the pandemic started. It’s to focus on experiencing different things, or rather have a mix of different solutions to reach out to your customer base. I would definitely say as the one advocating digitalisation, that would be one way that you should put in efforts to increasing your digital capabilities. Adopting digital solutions because I think it is not just a solution that is short term, but it will help you in the long term, because that’s where I think the world is going on to next.

JUN: And our last question. Do you think physical retail can still be king?

FAI: Physical retail can continue to be relevant, but the format would change, or rather would continue to evolve. I don’t think that we will totally forget about physical retail, because there are certain types of products that people would rather go down to the physical shop for the look and feel, the touch. I think these are still important aspects of physical retail. Additionally, what they should do is that, also be present on the digital space. Even if certain products, where it is not very easy to sell online, for example clothing, where people would need to touch the cloth, or the carpets, and things like that. You can still use digital solutions to market your shop to increase the visibility of your shope, to increase your brand name, awareness and these are the things that I would say work hand in hand. Digitalisation and also at the same time, continue to focus on your physical retail stores.

IMRAN: One thing for sure is that it is a very exciting time to evolve this retail experience together as an ecosystem. With that we have come to the end of today’s episodes. Thanks again Fai for coming down and sharing your thoughts with us today. If you have any questions regarding the Malay Chamber, digitisation of businesses, the programmes that they run, please feel free to write in to the show or ask questions and we will be sure to let Fai and her team know. We can be found on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube. And with that, stay tuned for the next episodes.

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