First published on The Straits Times on 02 September 2020.
Mothercare Singapore managing director Pang Fu Wei (top) in the brand’s experience store at HarbourFront.
Photo credit: Mohamed Ismail Bin Osman
When medical student Priscilla Ng discovered that she was pregnant with her first child in December, she felt overwhelmed.
“My heart was pounding really quickly. I was so excited to share the news with my husband,” says the 29-year-old who got married in July last year.
Soon after, her maternal instincts kicked in and she had an overflowing wish list of items to buy for her baby boy. “I just wanted to buy everything I saw online at first,” she laughs.
To avoid overspending, she sought advice from her older sister who is a mother of one. She was also introduced to Mothercare’s Digital Nursery Advisor (DNA), a complimentary online consultation service for parents to navigate the world of baby products.
Launched in April, the service is a digital version of Mothercare’s nursery advisor programme — a three-step consultation process that connects customers to trained and certified in-store professionals, who explain and recommend products that suit different parents’ needs.
The digital version allows customers to book consultations with these advisors online or speak with them via a video call.
“The programme adds a human touch to our customers’ online shopping experience,” says Mothercare group managing director Pang Fu Wei, 31, whose company, Kim Hin International, brought the British brand to Singapore.
Mothercare staff demonstrating the use of a pram via the Digital Nursery Advisor video call function.
Such efforts to transform the business have helped Mothercare to retain all 150 employees during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The DNA programme gave our sales team new roles during the circuit breaker period. As an organisation, we have always embraced the use of technology and adopted many digital solutions over the years to support business growth.”
Physical store closures a ‘baptism by fire’
Last year, Mothercare began planning its expansion from 11 physical stores into online marketplaces. It had considered the move some years ago but decided at the time to devote its resources to building its website first.
So, why now? “When you think of buying something today, you will often look it up on Lazada or other similar apps. This tells us that virtual marketplaces have become an essential customer touchpoint,” Mr Pang explains.
In early April, the retailer opened the doors to its Lazada e-commerce store just days before Singapore announced a nationwide circuit breaker lockdown.
While physical store closures saw Mothercare’s overall revenue fall by 60 per cent during the circuit breaker from the same period last year, its online revenue quadrupled.
It became Lazada’s largest supplier of mother-and-baby goods, excluding diapers and milk powder, within two months, and opened a store on Amazon’s e-commerce platform in May.
“Our warehouse team was stretched to the breaking point trying to keep up with the orders. It was a baptism by fire for us, and we would not have succeeded if not for my entire team and their tremendous effort,” says Mr Pang.
Even after the circuit breaker, the retailer’s e-commerce revenue increased by 1.5 times year-on-year.
An in-store Mothercare Singapore employee picks out items bought online.
From bricks to clicks
As part of its digital transformation journey, Mothercare is overhauling its information technology (IT) infrastructure and creating a new website with the help of enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore.
“Enterprise Singapore has been nothing but supportive over the years, including by providing us with valuable feedback and much-needed financial assistance through its Enterprise Development Grant,” says Mr Pang.
The refreshed website will be easier to navigate, feature more product information and have new functions where customers will be able to check stock availability based on store location.
A new one-hour click-and-collect function arranges for items to be picked up within an hour of a customer placing an online purchase. This helps those who are unable to secure a delivery time slot, an increasingly common issue with more Singaporeans flocking to online shopping during this period.
Customers consulting staff at the Mothercare Experience Store.
Mothercare's new IT system also reduces duplications, slashes the amount of time spent on administrative work and frees up employees for more productive tasks such as data analysis.
Says Mr Pang: “Our new system will allow for real-time data collection and reporting, which will lay the foundation for us to adopt new technologies such as self-checkout counters, robotic process automation and artificial intelligence.”
Productivity is the name of the game here. “We will be able to redesign jobs and every function, from buying and marketing to operations and finance, and even those within our warehouse, to improve efficiency and capacity.”
Care for employees
As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy became more severe, Mothercare took steps to protect the livelihood of its staff
Retrain and redeploy
When its physical stores were closed during the two-month circuit breaker period, staff were retrained and redeployed as digital nursery advisors or to help in warehouse and e-commerce fulfilment.
Mothercare’s group managing director Pang Fu Wei and training manager Amy Lim also conducted online masterclasses to equip employees with other skill sets, such as effective communication.
When Mothercare announced pay cuts for management, Mr Pang immediately held a company-wide virtual meeting to address staff’s concerns. “I wanted to emphasise that we are all in this together and that if we each bit a small bullet, the business could continue to operate without the need to reduce headcount.”
Staff who earned less than $2,200 a month were exempted from the exercise. The pay cuts came to an end when Singapore entered phase two of the circuit breaker. The amount cut will be returned to employees in the form of bonuses when business picks up.
Support and relief
The company provided subsidised accommodation for Malaysian staff who were unable to return home due to travel restrictions. Mr Pang’s family also set up a $50,000 fund to support employees who are struggling financially. The fund has helped 10 employees so far.
Ms Yvonne Low, 42, a senior sales advisor who was redeployed as a digital nursery advisor, shared that the company regularly updated employees on its plans to cope with the pandemic and assured staff that they would not lose their jobs.
“The company also organised training sessions via Zoom to refresh our knowledge about different products. I felt very safe about my future in the company.”