Changing how consumers experience products, brands

In this followup piece from a two-part feature, we explore how the global pandemic has impacted the way products are showcased and brands engage consumers as well as opened up new doors for some online players.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to change the way consumers interact with products and brands. Some businesses have adopted technologies such as augmented reality to reduce the dependency on physical sites, and others are tweaking their products to help ease the transition into a post-pandemic environment.

This followup piece of a two-part feature explores how the current crisis has impacted the way products are showcased and opened new doors for some online players, while the first article looks at how traditional companies are coping with the fallout from the pandemic.

Consumer expectation had amplified and changed tremendously, and businesses must evolve alongside their customers, said Jason Gregory, managing director for FastKey at Singapore-based online property listing platform, PropertyGuru.  

He called on the property sector, in particular, to transform, noting that many professionals in the industry, up until just three months ago, would refuse to use anything related to digital.

Faced with challenges brought about by COVID-19, property agents who previously depended on face-to-face meetings and lugged around physical brochures, now were turning to Zoom and trying to stand out by adopting these digital tools, Gregory told ZDNet. 

The pandemic also drove more consumers to shop online, including shoppers from the silver generation, said EZBuy CEO Wendy Liu. Founded in 2010, the online marketplace has 4 million registered users across four Asian markets including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. It also launched its e-commerce platform in Taiwan and Hong Kong last year, and peddles "millions of products" from China, Taiwan, Korea, and the US.

When asked, Liu said she was unable to share the site's transaction figures because it was a US-listed company, but revealed that volume grew by 50% between March and June across the six Asian markets in which it operated. Markets such as Singapore and Thailand also clocked higher growth rates. In addition, the average basket size across the region clocked at SG$60. 

She noted that e-commerce adoption, while growing fast, previously was comparatively low in most Southeast Asian markets. This now had accelerated significantly thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing more traditional sellers to digitalise and begin working with e-commerce players to drive sale, she said.

The growth momentum helped expand EZBuy's supplier network by some 20% as more sellers hopped on its marketplace, offering more variety in the products that now were available to consumers, she noted. 

"A lot of factories in China and Singapore, which in the past focused primarily on exports and had no intention to go on e-commerce platforms, started talking to us," Liu said, adding that her merchant team in China visited several factories that produced premium products. "This pandemic has disrupted the industry and opened [the] mindset of [these suppliers] to work with us, as they can now see us as [a channel to] amplify their sales."

She also expressed optimism that suppliers that typically worked only with shopping malls and major retailers now would consider collaborating with platforms such as EZBuy, giving online players the opportunity to approach them and further expand their product offerings. 

Retailers also would need tools to help them better manage their supply chain, noted George Pepes, Zebra Technologies' Asia-Pacific vertical solutions lead for healthcare and retail.

At the start of the pandemic, regardless of whether they were bricks or online players, some retail businesses struggled to cope with the operational strain from the sudden surge in online demand and faced problems with inventory, Pepes said in a phone interview. He added that these companies had just come off from having to handle robust demand from the year-end holidays, only to go head-on into another large demand uptick due to the pandemic in the first quarter.

He urged these companies to start looking at tools such as predictive analytics that would provide greater visibility and real-time data on their inventory, so they could make better decisions. 

He advised retailers against offering separate product listings for their online and offline channels, pointing to opportunities for offline retail players to tap their distribution channels and use their physical stores as fulfilment hubs. They then would need the right tools to properly map out and establish accurate, real-time, inventory visibility across their offline and online centres. This would help guarantee their ability to fulfil customer orders and deliver the best user experience, he said.

Delivering post-pandemic consumer experience

"It isn't a great experience if shoppers realise they are unable to purchase an item [on the merchant's] online store that they know they will otherwise be able to find at their physical store," Pepes said. "This is an opportunity [for retailers] to drive greater customer experience and differentiate themselves to make a comeback [post-pandemic], especially now as shoppers are more hesitant to go out into the stores."

Citing Zebra's own research, he said a large percentage of online shoppers would purchase from retailers that still maintained a bricks model. This indicated an appetite for in-store experience, especially for big-tickets items. 

But while there would always be a place for bricks-and-mortar, he said the role of such channels would change, presenting retailers an opportunity to modify their stores to not only be fulfilment hubs but also "experience centres". These would enable customers to experience a brand. "There will still be people willing to go into a mall, so there's an opportunity for retailers to implement the right tech and processes to bring people back," he said.

While it was still too soon to tell whether adopting digital tools would translate to more sales, Gregory said, more efforts should be made to tap emerging technologies to enhance experiences for consumers, he said, pointing to 5G and augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), in particular, for their potential in the property market.

"[Property] is still a bricks-and-mortar world and there's likelihood people will still continue to go to show galleries. So we need to also think about how we can enhance that, perhaps, by augmenting the experience with AR," he said.

PropertyGuru has integrated AR capabilities on its own platform, enabling properties to be viewed as a 3D space to provide a more immersive 360-degree experience, complete with a walkthrough of the home unit's floorplan and its surrounding landscape. Delivered on its FastKey platform through a feature called StoryTeller, it helps alleviate the need for physical galleries and allow agents to provide viewings remotely or without having to wait for show flats and sales galleries to be constructed.

The ability to visualise a property was critical as customers were more likely to invest in one that they could better visualise, he noted.

StoryTeller runs on a cloud-based visualisation application, Foyr, and taps data from different maps including Google and StreetMaps. 

Gregory noted that while AR and VR had failed to take off previously, primarily because devices were typically clunky and their application gimmicky, the technology had since evolved and now was built into mobile phone cameras and used to support more practical functions. 

Overlaying information about a show unit using AR, for instance, was a simple application of the technology, he said, adding that PropertyGuru would continue to invest in such features if they worked well. 

"Starbucks in China offers AR experience that's built into WeChat and the engagement from that is significant," he said. "When it is available at your fingertips, and you can interact without having to buy anything, that's when adoption can take off."

Adding that the increasing compute power of smartphones had opened up such possibilities, he noted that 5G connectivity would further fuel the potential of what more could be offered. 

PropertyGuru's FastKey platform, which currently supports more than 500 developer projects, is designed to automate the sales cycle of of properties, spanning their launch and close of sale. Developers use the system to check inventory and pricing, which can be configured and displayed in tiers so agent discounts will only be shown to the relevant agencies. Agents also use FastKey to access floor plans and units, which can be viewed in different layers including as an empty unit, so potential buyers can better visualise what they can do with the space.  

According to Gregory, PropertyGuru works with developers to collate artist impressions and diagrams on their launch projects and can incorporate information such as drone images into FastKey. Images then are rendered into 3D and digitised. Concepts for a 3D floor plan typically takes about a week to complete, while cityscapes and buildings require three to four weeks, depending on how quickly developers can provide the necessary information. 

FastKey users are charged an annual subscription spanning five years and includes hosting services. The platform is offered in five Southeast Asian markets, including Indonesia and Thailand. 

Tech players such as Zebra Technologies, too, are assessing the impact of COVID-19 and reviewing its product design to ease the transition for organisations. 

In Singapore, for instance, the vendor had helped some businesses tap its barcode scanners, and other devices they already were using on a daily basis, to facilitate government-mandated contract-tracing processes such as SafeEntry and maintain social distancing. Pepes said. In addition, most of Zebra's mobile computing systems operate on Google Android, which is a familiar platform for smartphone users here. 

"One key thing we're looking at is how to help retailers cope post-pandemic, such as facilitating in-store pickup for online purchases, ensuring mobile computing devices are helping store associates fulfil these tasks, enabling them to communicate with each other without the need for physical contact, as well as minimising the time customers need to spend in-store to pick up their orders," he explained.

For example, Zebra recently introduced SmartSight automation system, which are robots that have the capabilities to physically scan store shelves and send out real-time alerts to restock items that are low on inventory. 

Liu noted that traditional retailers now should realise e-commerce offered more efficiencies than physical stores since customers could purchase their products anytime, anywhere, and businesses could glean more profits from the economies of scale. 

However, these sellers would need to realise some changes were needed if they were to succeed in the online realm, she said. Product description and images, for example, were especially important as consumers would not be able to feel the product -- as they could in a physical store -- and would depend on this information to determine a product's unique selling points.

Videos also could be used to better demonstrate and feature the product's functionalities, she said, adding that EZBuy had a team dedicated to recruiting and training merchants on how to better market their products online. 

She noted that online marketplaces, too, could learn from their counterparts in China, where an intensely competitive e-commerce market had driven many local players to continuously develop new functions and features in order to offer richer user experience.

In addition, Liu said sellers on these Chinese platforms increasingly were tapping live video streaming and broadcasts to drive sales. TikTok, for instance, saw its usage time climb 80% during the pandemic as well as an uptick of people selling products and running ads on its platform. 

She related how EZBuy's biggest shareholder, which had begun manufacturing aircrafts, was able to sell three private jets within 30 minutes of running a live broadcast. The online marketplace also helped one grocery operator tap Facebook Live to showcase its stock of durians, pushing 400 boxes of the fruit within 10 minutes of streaming the video.


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