How data is helping traditional small businesses succeed in a pandemic

By Mimrah Mahmood, Senior Director & Partner at Meltwater

Mrs. Lim, 63, has been running the famous Bak Kut Teh stall at the neighbourhood hawker centre for over three decades. Much like the humble fare she serves, not much changed over the years in the way Auntie Lim runs her business—until an unprecedented global pandemic forced her hand.

For businesses reliant on traditional models, a nationwide lockdown has meant falling foot traffic or worse permanent closures. This isn’t a temporary blip either. One Nielsen study found that consumers across Asia have signaled their dine-out habits are likely to change permanently even after the world moves beyond COVID-19. To overcome this, many businesses were quick to shift to digital technologies, but for some others, like Mrs. Lim with little or no online presence, the decision to migrate is much more purposeful and often a matter of survival. Fortunately, there are ways small businesses can adopt digital tools without struggling with the disruption associated with transitioning. Here’s how:

Take advantage of government assistance

Beyond just making the necessary tools available to the community, governments must ensure that everyone, including the less-savvy enterprises, know how to access and leverage these resources. The Singapore Government is a stellar example of how to proactively bridge the ‘digital divide’ through measures like the new SG Digital Office, which aims to ensure that seniors, stallholders and vulnerable sections are not left out as we become more digitally connected.

Promoting inclusion and development is not new to Singapore – it’s something that government bodies like Workforce Singapore have been working towards for years. Moving forward, these organisations can act as a medium to collate key data and insights from external sources, and package it in reports and resources that can be easily disseminated to the business community. This will regulate the flow of information even to vulnerable sections like seniors, encouraging them to pick up certain skills and adopt relevant technologies in order to successfully navigate the evolving socio-economic landscape.

The role of external data

Traditional retailers, hawkers and small business owners have typically relied on word-of-mouth as their primary source of information and customer insights. However in this current and rapidly evolving landscape, businesses need to be in the loop of community conversations to stay abreast of latest and emerging trends.

For example, a recent Meltwater analysis of Singapore’s online and media community shows that conversations around digital payments have been on the rise since COVID-19 first reached our shores in January. This became even more apparent during the circuit breaker period, which accelerated both the need and adoption of digital transactions. Leveraging the right resources to monitor emerging conversations like this will allow businesses to plan ahead, and Meltwater is helping them do this through our free daily COVID-19 newsletter.

Insights from social media and news searches

In the digital era, customers are using online and social platforms as the primary outlet to voice their thoughts, preferences and feedback. Social listening can help businesses track and collate this valuable information about customer sentiment and behavioural patterns, which can be used as actionable insights to guide more informed decision-making. Monitoring global news and success stories from outside Singapore also provides reliable information and learnings that business and government bodies can apply back home.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world as we know it, and it’s difficult to predict what the future holds for industries. In times like this, information is power, and businesses need to continue looking outward in order to understand and adjust to the new realities.