First published in The Straits Times on 16 September 2020.
They may leave a mess of toys, dander and drool in their wake, but there’s no denying that pets hold a special place in our hearts.
Smitten pet owners are why local pet supplies chain Pet Lovers Centre (PLC) strives to improve its services and operations regularly.
In January, the company renovated one of its three 35,000 sq ft (3,250 sq m) warehouses in Yishun to update it with a brand-new $2.5 million automated storage and retrieval system that would speed up the facility’s operations and improve its staff’s productivity. The new warehouse re-opened in June.
Before the automated system was installed, employees had to manually locate and retrieve items from shelves across the expansive warehouse.
Now, employees merely press a few buttons on a tablet or desktop computer and — voila — a robot retrieves the products they want and delivers it to them.
The cutting-edge system, developed with help from enterprise development agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG), has doubled the company’s productivity and warehouse storage capacity.
It can now store and retrieve 50 pallets an hour with the help of the automated storage and retrieval system, compared to just 15 pallets per hour if the work was done manually. The new warehouse also has more storage space than the other two.
“With the robots, our staff no longer need to operate forklifts in the warehouse for long hours and can focus on fulfilling orders,” says PLC’s group logistics manager Kelvin Foo.
The 52-year-old adds that employees had to undergo a 19-day training programme to learn how to use the new system, which helped to build confidence and staff morale.
Itching to innovate
For years, the company, one of Singapore’s oldest and largest pet supplies stores, has had a keen eye for technologies that would help it grow and prepare for the future.
“We’ve been digitalising since 2003 when we started investing in e-commerce operations,” says chief executive David Ng.
That foresight helped it weather the April-June circuit breaker, when it had to close all 70 of its physical stores here.
“Unlike other pet stores that had their sales come to a complete halt, we were able to take orders through our website due to our early e-commerce investment,” shares the 52-year-old.
The firm’s daily online orders surged up to 18 times more during the circuit breaker. While this was not enough to replace the loss of sales from its brick-and-mortar stores, it was a lifeline.
The company retained all 500 employees by redeploying some of them to its warehouses and customer service department, and also hired temporary staff to fulfil online orders.
“The digitalisation projects that we carried out earlier, such as installing a comprehensive intranet system, also enabled the majority of our office staff to work from home,” says Mr Ng.
Adding to that, the company has been investing in staff training in areas like product knowledge and customer service since 2003.
“We also hired several senior managers during this pandemic to help us grow. Our management team is now stronger than ever,” he explains.
Keeping pace in a pandemic
With customers hunkering down during the nationwide lockdown earlier this year, PLC realised it had to quickly adjust its services to cater to them.
It introduced a new computer system to process online orders faster in response to the high volume of orders it was receiving via its website. The system tracks the availability of products and determines whether online orders can be fulfilled, cutting the time needed to process online orders from five minutes to just one minute per order.
Speed was key, says Mr Ng. “Given the volume of online orders during the circuit breaker, we had little time to train redeployed and temporary staff. The new system, developed in-house by our own engineers, not only improved our processing time but facilitated the quick deployment of untrained staff to process orders.”
The computer system was built with ease of use in mind, he adds. With some training, “anyone who can play a computer game” would be able to operate the system.
This has given the company more flexibility to use part-timers if its staff requires more help.
“Should there be another circuit breaker, we will be much more ready to use e-commerce to buffer the loss of our brick-and-mortar sales,” Mr Ng declares.
PLC’s great upgrade
To develop its business holistically, PLC regularly upgrades its operations in other areas too.
It made its website more useful for customers with a personalisation engine introduced in March last year that tracks customers’ shopping patterns to refine its recommendations.
Among an array of ways to buy pet supplies, people can use the website to identify stores nearest to them carrying the products they want — if they wish to pick up the items in-store. Customers can also call the brand’s delivery hotline or place an online order.
This integrated approach to sales is key to PLC’s goal of becoming an omnichannel company.
“Consumers today want to be able to get their necessities as conveniently as possible. Pet owners are no exception. Being an omnichannel firm is about being totally accessible, both online and offline,” Mr Ng notes.
To expand its online reach, the company is opening stores on virtual marketplaces. It opened a store on Lazada in 2017 and is in talks with Shopee to open a store on its e-commerce platform.
While such initiatives have helped it remain resilient and profitable amid uncertainty, it has not been a solitary journey.
“ESG worked tirelessly to provide us and others in the industry with timely updates, communicate new policy developments, clarify manpower restrictions and other matters, and share our feedback to policymakers,” Mr Ng stresses.
Looking ahead, he adds: “I think we are already the most accessible pet supplies store you can find. We want Pet Lovers Centre to be a household name for everything pets-related.”