Honestbee can fly high again: Analysts

The sceptics were out in force after retail start-up Honestbee endured a fortnight of bad press and a change in leadership, but analysts reckon the company can bounce back.

The pioneering firm has been at the forefront of disrupting the grocery retail sector since 2015 and has built a significant presence here and overseas.

Its online service allows shoppers to order groceries and arrange for delivery at a stipulated time, which can be on the same day.

The firm also opened Singapore's first cashless and automated supermarket - called habitat - in October last year.

But what seemed like a smooth upward trajectory came unstuck on May 2 when co-founder and chief executive Joel Sng resigned from the start-up.

It also said on April 30 that it was suspending some of its overseas operations and laying off up to 10 per cent of its global staff as part of an ongoing strategic review.

It will stop services in Hong Kong and Indonesia and its food business in Thailand. The start-up will also suspend services in Japan and the Philippines.

Speculations about the company's poor financials were rife before Honestbee announced the changes.

Earlier media reports stated that Honestbee was looking for a buyer because its funds were running low. The candidates included ride-hailing companies Grab and Gojek.

The Taipei Times reported on May 3 that more than 200 suppliers and restaurant owners had banded together to press Honestbee to pay them their dues. Some creditors were allegedly owed more than NT$300,000 (S$13,200).

The ship was steadied somewhat on May 2 when the firm announced that Mr Brian Koo, whose family controls electronics giant LG, had taken over as Honestbee chief executive.

The change at the top is an ideal opportunity for a reset, say analysts, who believe that Honestbee needs to focus on what it does best and re-assess its expansion strategy to stay competitive in what has become an increasingly crowded playing field. It also needs to pay extra attention to its financials and overseas ventures.

ESSEC Business School Associate Professor Jan Ondrus said: "Competition is fierce in the online space in Singapore. Stretching scarce resources to compete on many fronts is a risky bet."

Experts point to habitat as a way to grow profits.

National University of Singapore Associate Professor Lawrence Loh said that habitat had transformed the concept of grocery shopping here. Trive managing partner Christopher Quek said that Honestbee, and its rival RedMart, had also encouraged supermarkets such as Giant, Cold Storage and NTUC FairPrice to up their delivery services game. RedMart was bought by Alibaba-backed Lazada in 2016.

Prof Loh noted: "Grocery shopping is no longer a stop on the way home or a chore... Habitat is a destination for grocery shoppers who also want to enjoy a meal."

Shoppers can also get free delivery provided they spend a minimum sum, so they do not need to lug groceries to their car or home, added Prof Loh, who is also director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations. "Grocery shopping has become very enjoyable and convenient."

Bosses at Honestbee told employees at a town hall meeting last month that habitat was profitable. The company is not obliged to disclose its financials as it is not a publicly listed company.

Mr Quek said habitat, which stocks 20,000 products across its 60,000 sq ft premises, could take hold here.

He noted how sporting goods retailer Decathlon expanded by building its online presence and having a strong logistics network, despite its remote outlet in Joo Koon. "The hybrid brick-and-click model has shown itself to be successful... rather than a pure online delivery service."

Honestbee needs to get its financial house in order first, but little is known about this aspect except that it raised US$15 million (S$20.4 million) in Series A funding led by investment firm Formation 8, where Mr Koo was a founding member.

Honestbee's new chief of staff, Mr Varian Lim, told a panel discussion last month that the start-up was under pressure from investors to expand quickly in its early years. Its former CEO, Mr Sng, had told The Business Times last year that Honestbee had plans to launch habitat in Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Prof Ondrus said: "The new management team should assess the current business model, keep what makes sense and remove the extras. They might want to go leaner... to be more viable."

Singapore Polytechnic marketing and retail lecturer Lucas Tok said that Honestbee was under incessant pressure to diversify and expand "at a rate that causes the burn rate to trigger an inherent crisis... Honestbee's expansion into eight markets... is too fast".

Mr Quek said investors are concerned about "viable business rations rather than just growth for growth's sake".

"Start-ups have a high chance of failure, especially the ones in the marketplace that do not have a dominant strategy or the luxury of a war chest. It is highly important to conserve cash and not burn excessively just to focus on growth."