In 1979, an English inventor named Michael Aldrich connected a modified television set to a transaction processing computer – making secure data transmission via telephone line possible, and essentially marking the birth of modern e-commerce as we know it. Of course, very few then imagined the scale to which it would grow to. Following that, each decade saw major developments in the world of e-commerce. The 1990s saw the introduction of Amazon, eBay, PayPal and Alibaba – while the turn of the new millennia saw Google introduce Google AdWords, and in turn set the wheels in motion for the marketing industry’s digital revolution. In the last decade, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have picked up where Google left off, monetising through the propagation of sponsored posts.
The booming growth of e-commerce, specifically in the last two decades, essentially meant that retailers could no longer afford to ignore it. According to a report by Kantar consulting group, Southeast Asia’s e-commerce sector grew by 600 percent in value from 2015 to 2019, amounting to a $38 billion dollar valuation in a span of four years. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has done nothing but speed up digital adoption. International e-commerce grew 41 percent in a span of three months, coinciding with the global lockdown in the months before September.
For brands that rely largely on offline sales, the lockdown measures have seen many struggling to adapt. Singapore, once referred to as one of Southeast Asia’s shopping havens, has seen many notable retail chains shut down physical stores. Notable names like Topman, Esprit and Tokyu Hands have shut down their physical stores, while legacy businesses like Sportslink have permanently ceased operations.
So, what does this mean for the future of retail? Obviously, we will see an increasing number of businesses pivot to online channels. However, the transition from physical retail to e-commerce is not the same for every brand. Luxury brands for example, cannot afford to totally erase their physical presence. The majority of consumers looking to purchase big-ticket items still prefer to have a feel of the product before purchasing, as well as the level of personalised shopping experience that comes with engaging with luxury brands.
Many e-commerce and online sales platforms, however, fail to provide this level of personalised service. Customer experience is often overlooked as businesses shift their business strategy online, and keeping customers engaged is one of the key challenges for the retail industry in the digital age. In days past, many customers have sworn by brands, returning time and again because of the level of service afforded to them. In a way, these brands provided more than a product, but also a service – where their employees were a key part of the business in retaining customer loyalty.
Digital adoption is key in this day and age, but application of the technology is an important factor that is often overlooked. Last month, The Activation Group (TAG) held a webinar series centred around the theme, “Human Touch in a Digital World”, which talked about the relationship between technology and people in business. One of the key topics discussed in the webinar was the use of technology in people-oriented businesses such as retail.
Rather than replacing people, it is my personal belief, that technology exists to enhance the human experience. Data-driven marketing for example, is a diamond mine for brands looking to personalise consumer experiences – one whose potential we have yet to fully explore. As it is, shifting to online sales channels is a pressing challenge for legacy retail brands, one that has been made more urgent by the current pandemic.
As some of you may know, Oomph! – one of the six pillars under The Activation Group, is a bespoke brand engagement agency that prides itself in training and matchmaking the right people to retail brands. While the manpower matchmaking agency has traditionally centred its business around the offline retail experience, at its core the business has always been about building brand loyalty through consumer engagement. The pandemic-driven shift to online retail posed not just a business challenge, but an opportunity for Oomph! to explore the digital space.
Late last month, the agency announced the launch of its online ambassador platform, ENGAGE, with the aim of helping retail bridge the experiential gap commonly found on online shopping. More than just a platform, ENGAGE combines the efficiency and convenience of technology with the personalised experience that comes from human interaction. Aside from an optimised user interface and cutting-edge AI chatbots, ENGAGE also provides retail brands with trained and dedicated brand ambassadors to enhance online shopping experiences – recommending and matching consumers to the right products and offering assistance in matters such as booking appointments to physical stores.
It is undeniable that the e-commerce industry continues to grow and eat away at the retail market share. This is not to say that brick-and-mortar stores have lost their place – and I fully expect shopping malls to continue thriving post-pandemic. As I mentioned previously, human interaction is still necessary as a retail experience for many brands, and the business challenge is for brands to successfully balance its offline and online channel strategies.
The launch of ENGAGE is an example of how people-oriented businesses can thrive in a digital age and is a step forward in creating a harmonious relationship between people and technology. If anything, the shift in consumer behaviour and reliance on technology, represents an opportunity for businesses to evolve and explore the digital space.
You can find out more about ENGAGE on our website: https://www.oomphpl.com.sg/engage/