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Why e-commerce will never completely replace brick-and-mortar shopping

According to retail veteran Simon Naga, who handles brands like Reebok and Zara locally, Singaporeans might be a tech-savvy lot, but they also enjoy the offline experience.

Why e-commerce will never completely replace brick-and-mortar shopping

Simon Naga is the VP of Al-Futtaim Asia (Retail). (Photo: Al-Futtaim)

When Simon Naga first moved from Dubai to Singapore in 2017 to become Managing Director of Inditex brands – which includes fast fashion favourites like Zara, Pull&Bear and Massimo Dutti – the very first thing he did was to instruct his team not to let anyone know he had arrived. The very next thing he did, was to go shopping. For three whole weeks.

“I wanted to check out all our stores personally, without anyone knowing who I was yet,” said Naga, who has 18 years’ experience in fashion retail. “And I wanted to see what our competitors were up to.”

In January this year, he was appointed VP of Al-Futtaim Asia (Retail), overseeing not just Inditex, but also department stores Marks & Spencer and Robinsons; multi-brand retailers like Royal Sporting House; as well as fashion, lifestyle and sports labels such as Aape, Coast, Karl Lagerfeld, Nautica, Oasis, Reebok and Ted Baker, among others.

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This essentially made him the head honcho of Singapore’s largest fashion retail distributor, whose job involves getting inside the head of the Singapore shopper.

“The Singapore shopper is very fashion-forward, and very demanding,” he said. “For example, recently, I noticed that there was a bestselling collection from a certain brand (not under Al-Futtaim), which sold very well everywhere, except in Singapore.”

According to Naga, Singaporean shoppers are less likely to buy an entire trend top-to-toe, unlike, say, shoppers in Thailand.

“Singaporeans like to mix and match, and they prefer summery items that can be worn throughout the year while still referencing the latest seasonal trends,” he noted. “It’s almost impossible as most brands cater to four seasons, but we work around it by speaking directly to the brands we distribute about the specific needs of this market, which serves as the fashion hub for all of Southeast Asia. We ask our brands to specifically design and produce items suited for Singapore, even if it’s in smaller quantities that their factories are used to producing.”

And while Singaporeans are a tech-savvy lot who shop online frequently, they also like the brick-and-mortar experience.

“After all, Singaporeans love going out to meet friends and have fun; they like eating out, and if they’re headed to a restaurant, chances are, they’ll take the opportunity to shop too,” said Naga, who admitted that he does not shop online.

“The Singapore shopper is very fashion-forward, and very demanding. Singaporeans like to mix and match, and they prefer summery items that can be worn throughout the year while still referencing the latest seasonal trends.” – Simon Naga, Al-Futtaim Asia

“To me, nothing beats the pleasure of heading out to the stores, and seeing, touching and trying before I buy. And I know for sure that there are many, many other shoppers like me. That’s why I believe offline shopping isn’t going to disappear anytime soon; rather, I see online and offline shopping as completing each other, rather than competing with each other.”

According to Naga, online sales account for only 5 per cent of Al-Futtaim’s Singapore revenue. As such, his focus remains on drawing customers into his stores, “by creating a great offline experience, in terms of innovative store concepts, attractive visual merchandising, excellent customer service, special shopping privileges for loyal shoppers, and so on”.

Referring to stalwart shopping destination Robinsons, which has established a firm reputation for its customer service, he asks rhetorically: “Your typical department store here carries between 800 to 1,000 brands, many of which are available at other department stores. What makes shoppers come to us, over our competitors, when we are all essentially selling the same items and brands?”

The answer might just lie in how he engages external consultants to produce regular detailed Mystery Shopper reports that cover anything and everything from whether the windows were spotless, whether sales staff were polite, knowledgeable and pro-active in cross-selling, whether the fitting rooms were well-staffed and pleasantly outfitted, if the cashier bade customers goodbye, and so on.

“These days, the main trends in retail is ‘anything but basic’ and ‘making customers feel good’,” he explained. “It’s about the experience. Maybe 20 years ago shoppers loved the idea of stores stocking lots of products. These days, it’s more about how you put things together; it’s about selling ideas. You always have to think of ways to explain retail to the new generation, in ways they pay attention to. So of course, these days we’re big on social media and influencers as marketing channels, rather than just relying on newspapers and magazines and in-store fashion shows.”

Asked to recount some of his favourite recent examples of innovative marketing executed by the brands under his care, Naga cites a Zara campaign last year that made use of Augmented Reality that was employed across outlets 313@Somerset, Ion Orchard, Marina Bay Sands and Ngee Ann City stores over a period of four weeks.

“To me, nothing beats the pleasure of heading out to the stores, and seeing, touching and trying before I buy. And I know for sure that there are many, many other shoppers like me.” – Simon Naga, Al-Futtaim Asia

The Spanish fast fashion brand’s store windows appeared completely empty, save signs encouraging shoppers to download and use the Zara AR app, and train their smartphones on a QR code – upon which holographs of models Lea Julian and Fran Summers pose, move around and even speak while dressed in the SS18 Zara Studio collection. Shoppers could also take and send photos alongside the holograms. The clothes and accessories could be purchased instantly through the app, as well as in store. Online shoppers also received their goods in boxes bearing the same code, which, when activated, would cause a miniature hologram model to walk around the box.

More recently, in conjunction with the opening of Spanish loungewear and lingerie brand Oysho’s concept store ( a recent addition to Al-Futtaim’s portfolio) at Jewel Changi Airport, 70 customers were treated, over three sessions, to a yoga class conducted within Jewel’s lush indoor landscaping, before a VIP store visit.

But Naga says that one thing that hasn’t changed, despite technological innovations and evolving tastes of consumers, and despite the fact that Al-Futtaim’s brands carry products “for customers aged one month and above”, is that “ultimately, women still form the bulk of our shoppers. The same goes for retail, as it does at home: If you don’t make the woman happy, you’re in for a hard time.”

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Source: CNA/ds