Going high-tech with a human touch

Amid a perennial labour shortage, industries that are traditionally dependent on manpower and service quality are tapping technology not to replace workers, but to free them up.

WITH consumers going digital, the lifestyle sector must keep up. Online retail insights can spur offline gains; a Web presence can snare new customers; and cold hard technology can enable warmer service. In fact, it "actually allows more human touch at the points that matter", says Future Economy Council lifestyle subcommittee co-chair Sim Ann.

One of six industry groupings, the lifestyle cluster includes food manufacturing, food services, retail, and hotels. The latter three are "very classic service industries", traditionally dependent on manpower and service quality, notes Ms Sim, who is Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information as well as for Culture, Community and Youth.

Yet amid a perennial labour shortage, these industries must transform: tapping technology not to replace workers, but to free them up.

In food services, firms are adopting self-service ordering via kiosks, tablets, and apps. This lets staff focus on customer service or higher value-added areas, says subcommittee co-chair Vincent Tan, managing director of food service provider Select Group and president of the Restaurant Association of Singapore (RAS).

In short, self-service does not mean worse service. On the contrary: "It lets customers have a better experience, because it's much faster." Restaurants have seen sales rise after introducing such systems, he adds.

A five-star hotel might seem like a less likely location for self-service. But freeing staff from routine tasks helps them provide warmer service, and the new system makes for a more efficient stay. As Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel The Stamford general manager Marcus Hanna quips: "Queueing's not luxurious."

Since September, Swissotel The Stamford's newly renovated lobby has featured digital kiosks for checking in and out. Former receptionists are now "hospitality ambassadors", roaming the lobby to greet guests.

In traditional checking-in, staff concentrate on the process, says Mr Hanna. "Whereas now our colleagues can engage more with guests. They're standing beside them, they can build an emotional connection rather than being process-driven."

Instead of "just asking for passports and asking for details", staff can chat with guests and share recommendations. As he sums up: "We still have the human touch, and actually we've enhanced the human touch."

Guests enjoy more efficiency, too. Check-in takes three minutes, down from four to five before. Checking out takes less than 30 seconds. Queues, too, have all but disappeared: "It's very frustrating when a guest comes to check out, they've got an aeroplane to catch or they're going to a meeting, they come down to a hotel lobby and there's a queue to check out. We don't have that anymore."

The hotel itself made efficiency gains, with front office manpower needs cut by 8 to 10 per cent - valuable savings amid a labour shortage.

"Manpower in Singapore is not easy to find in the hospitality industry for certain roles, and so we needed to find a way to be more efficient and ensure that we could still service our guests," said Mr Hanna. The lobby job redesign was part of a broader push that included a better purchasing process and changes to housekeeping procedures, which allowed the hotel to hire more senior workers to do less physical tasks.

In retail, too, technology can "simplify a lot of processes which used to be done manually but have very little to do with providing the human touch to customers", says Ms Sim.

Stock-taking of high-value items such as jewellery can tie up much manpower, but RFID tags make this more efficient: "It frees up employees' time to interact more with customers, and they can do more sales."

Online browsing

Granted, a growing share of sales now happens online. Yet the rise of e-commerce does not mean the obsolescence of brick-and-mortar shops.

The fanfare around new openings such as Changi Airport's Jewel and the redeveloped Funan mall shows that shoppers still get excited about "destination retail", says Ms Sim.

As furniture retailer Commune's chief executive officer Joshua Koh puts it: "At the end of the day, I believe customers still want an experience, a physical experience, to complement the digital one."

Furniture retail has traditionally been a brick-and-mortar game, particularly at a certain price point. "When you're buying a S$2,000, S$3,000 product, you still want to have that element of physical touch and feel before making that purchase decision."

Commune opened its first store in Millenia Walk in 2011, which - in enlarged form - remains its flagship, alongside a Defu Lane showroom and a "collaborative space" in Outram.

Its offline expansion has not always been sustained. Later stores in IMM and Paragon eventually closed due to rental costs. Online efforts, on the other hand, have only intensified.

"As we progressed, we realised that the consumer shopping journey was changing," says Mr Koh. "Instead of going around to furniture malls or clusters of furniture zones, a lot of the research phase was done online."

Shoppers shortlist items online, then make targeted visits to stores. "So we felt that a digital presence was extremely important, because if not then you will be totally away from their whole consumer journey."

Such digital discovery is increasingly important. Even diners are changing the way they search, with more of them discovering restaurants via delivery apps, notes Mr Tan.

Firms need a Web presence and a digital marketing strategy not just to reach new customers today, but to future-proof themselves, says Ms Sim. While e-commerce still accounts for a tiny fraction of overall retail, that is precisely why retailers must go digital now: "If they wait till the proportion flips, it will be too late."

In 2015, Commune launched an online shop and a mobile app. But the problem then was that the offline stores, online shop, and mobile app all operated in silos, says Mr Koh. The e-shop worked fine, but was synced only once an hour with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

The firm decided to fully integrate. Last September, its Commune: In Motion app was launched. Now its app, website, and mobile point-of-sale (POS) - via which staff can help customers make purchases anywhere in the store - are all linked in real-time to the same ERP system.

Shoppers can use the app to scan an item's QR code in the store, and buy it via the app or mobile POS.

Or they can add items to their shopping cart or wishlist in the app before turning up at the store - where a salesperson will scan their in-app QR code to view the items, then bring them straight to view the products.

Or they could create an account on the spot, add products to their cart as they browse the physical store, then go home to mull over purchases.

The app even lets shoppers "bring items home". In focus groups for its development, customers said it was hard to visualise how furniture might fit in their home when shopping online. Commune therefore developed 3D models of products, to be viewed from different angles. Its mobile app even has an augmented reality function which lets users view how selected items would look in their own home, via their smartphone cameras.

Apart from offering customers more convenience, Commune uses technology to improve its own efficiency too. Its physical stores have sensors for heatmapping: seeing where customers linger the longest.

"We wanted to push our retail footprint and make use of the physical space to the max," says Mr Koh. "So having the right product in the right place, as well as information about that product, was important."

If part of the store has high traffic but yields low sales, then prices might need to be reviewed. Or if there is a "dead zone", the display might need changing, to attract attention. In short, digital technology can be used to improve offline operations too.

May I help you?

Faced with the challenges of rents, costs, and manpower, small firms might feel that they have enough to deal with already, even without embarking on transformation. Yet transformation is precisely what can help.

Food services firms are moving forward because it is risky to stay put, notes Mr Tan. They cannot keep relying heavily on labour when competition is keeping prices low: "You'll be out of the market eventually."

"For every business that believes that somehow technology can't help them, we would be able to share examples of someone who has done exactly the opposite and has been rewarded for it," says Ms Sim. Even fishmongers have gone online - contrary to those in traditional trades who might think the Internet is irrelevant.

Nor do firms have to go it alone. "There is a lot of help out there," says Mr Tan, noting a range of government support from skills training to productivity and innovation grants. "You just have to step forward."

Though Commune's omnichannel efforts cost S$300,000 to S$400,000, a significant amount was funded by Enterprise Singapore (ESG), said Mr Koh. For the app, Commune also had consultancy support from the Infocomm Media Development Authority for a workshop on "design thinking", an approach which focuses on user needs.

A food and lifestyle pop-up series by ESG has been taking local retail, food manufacturing, and food services to overseas markets, with the fourth pop-up happening in Jakarta in March.

Trade associations and chambers are another source of aid, with the RAS having a mentorship programme in which industry veterans guide new entrants. It also holds overseas trips on which local firms can learn about new concepts and innovations, or look at taking their brands abroad.

Nor do firms need to worry about developing specialised in-house expertise. Commune's app was developed by an external vendor. Similarly, Swissotel The Stamford found a tech partner to work with its own IT and front office teams. Says Mr Hanna: "At the end of the day, we're not a technology company."

When it comes to skills that firms do indeed have to acquire, the labour movement can help. Across the lifestyle cluster, firms are adopting technology and automation to address new demands from overseas expansion or to meet changing consumer needs, notes Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU) general secretary Tan Hock Soon. To prepare the workforce, particularly seniors, the FDAWU works closely with NTUC LearningHub and SkillsFuture Singapore on sector-based digital skills training, to equip those aged 50 and above with foundational digital knowledge and tools.

This complements efforts such as the Company Training Committees set up by unions within firms to address their specific needs, adds Mr Tan, urging more firms to tap such national training schemes to "build up workers' confidence and competence to navigate the future of work".

After Commune's first foray, staff were hesitant about a second push. "But what we did was get them all involved in the design thinking workshop," says Mr Koh. "From there, they had a bit more buy-in."

To ease frontline staff in, implementation took place via incremental steps. And Commune's in-house tech expert provided important support, as a former salesperson himself.

"He can empathise with their concerns. When he develops solutions, he's able to identify what will (work)," says Mr Koh. "What helped was also that he stood with them and sold with them (using the app)."

At Swissotel The Stamford, the new self-service system freed the staff from the hassle of admin work and paperwork. But there was an unexpected challenge: getting used to closer interaction with guests.

"Suddenly we've taken them out of their safe environment of behind the desk, and we've put them out with no barrier," says Mr Hanna. The management noticed this issue within a week, and gave some added training.

"It was just running through with them, saying that actually now your role is to be talking one-on-one, to be asking the guests 'Oh so what are you doing here in Singapore?' - trying to get more information from the guests and build an emotional connection... So it was really just getting them to have the confidence to be out there."

Confidence is something that firms themselves may need in order to transform. For risk-averse firms, seeing proven examples could help.

"Now that we've done it, we're already seeing that there's a number of other hotels introducing it," says Mr Hanna. "People weren't convinced that there was a system out there that worked, in order to do it. Now that they've seen there is, they're much more open to doing it."

Along its transformation journey, Swissotel The Stamford has received help from consultants, government grants, and support from FDAWU and the Singapore Hotel Association. Now it is passing it on, giving talks to the industry about its experience.

Though the idea may have initially seemed unorthodox, the reception has turned out to be warm. Says Mr Hanna: "I think as long as the technology makes sense, people will accept it."

Collaboration within and across the industries in the lifestyle cluster can help more firms take flight, says Ms Sim: "It builds a much stronger presence for Singapore brands when we go out as a team."

ESG and the Singapore Food Manufacturers' Association (SFMA) collaborated with distributor and retailer Focus Network Agencies for the Singapore Food Gifts Initiative, promoting products by local food manufacturers to tourists at Changi Airport. Sales of these food gifts have crossed S$3.6 million since the initiative's launch in November 2017, with SFMA and ESG now looking to bring other food manufacturers on board and replicate the success at other tourist spots.

The lifestyle cluster, after all, does not just ride on the strength of the Singapore brand - it adds value to that brand, in turn, says Ms Sim. "It's about developing Singapore flavours, the Singapore aesthetic, and overall, the Singapore lifestyle."

The lifestyle cluster does not just ride on the strength of the Singapore brand - it adds value to that brand, in turn, says Sim Ann, Future Economy Council lifestyle subcommittee co-chair. "It's about developing Singapore flavours, the Singapore aesthetic, and overall, the Singapore lifestyle."

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