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Small companies go big on tech to grow

last updated 02 May 2017

More Singapore-based SMEs in traditional sectors such as retail and F&B are leveraging technology to ramp up their productivity and expand their businesses.

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Local SMEs such as Five Star Chicken Rice have turned to technology for business solutions. (Photo credits: Five Star Chicken Rice)

By Jo-Ann Huang

The babble of the crowd and the clatter of crockery is overshadowed by the blaring ringing of the phone. A harried worker rushes over, straining to decipher the staccato voice ordering a takeaway.

This was Five Star Chicken Rice, before it raised productivity and reduced strain on its manpower for its chain of restaurants via a mobile app for takeaways and drive-through orders.

The app – developed by a pre-qualified vendor of the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) SMEs Go Digital programme - is a roaring success, resulting in marked improvement in efficiency by reducing 80 percent of the steps required in the ordering process for takeaway orders.

“Before implementing this app, our staff needed to pick up calls and spend a few minutes on the phone to confirm orders,” said Five Star's Managing Director, Ann Yeo. “There was food wastage due to errors, as the restaurant can get quite noisy at times."

Going the mobile app route also meant going cashless, which eliminated errors in daily sales updates from cash orders. “When the customer arrives to collect the food, cash may be dropped during payment. Sometimes, our staff has to run back to the customers to give them the correct change,” added Ms Yeo.

Labour shortages faced by Five Star are common in traditionally manpower-intensive sectors such as food and beverage (F&B), and hit small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) especially hard. However, more SMEs are warming to the idea of using technology as a means to improve their productivity.

“With SMEs facing a shortage of manpower, going digital to increase day-to-day business productivity (is) the way to go,” said Ms Yeo.

Jeweller Soo Kee Group is another SME using technology to ramp up their efficiency and grow their business. Producing 3D mock models of diamond jewellery and settings took almost a month, a significant bottleneck to keeping pace with consumer demands.

The company realised it could not continue with this if they wished to stay competitive. Last year, Soo Kee adopted a 3D-printing system with funding from SPRING Singapore that cut down model production to just three days.

This near ten-time increase in time savings has allowed them to produce more designs, and importantly, led to better sales conversion rates; customers were more likely to make a purchase based on an accurate 3D rendition of their desired design.

"It is all about adding value and differentiating yourself from the competition. In order to do that, we need to embrace change and look towards technology for solutions,” explained Soo Kee Goup CEO Daniel Lim.

A helping hand to make the leap

To help SMEs build strong digital capabilities and deploy digital technologies, the Government announced the S$80 million SMEs Go Digital Programme during the Budget 2017 earlier this year. The initiative, which kicked off on 1 April and administered by the IMDA, provides SMEs with step-by-step advice on the digital technologies to use at each stage of their growth through a series of sectoral Industry Digital Plans. The programme will start with sectors where digital technology can significantly help SMEs build strong digital capabilities in addition to improving their productivity, including retail, food services, wholesale trade, logistics, cleaning and security.

Businesses can receive advice on adopting digital technologies that have been IMDA pre-qualified. These include proven solutions from front-end solutions such as e-ordering and e-payment to back-end solutions such as data analytics, data protection and cybersecurity.

One of these vendors is e-commerce platform developer Applied Mesh. It partnered DBS Bank to implement the DBS FasTrack mobile app, a solution that allows customers to order meals or drinks and pay via their mobile app before they even hit the stalls; then simply show up to collect. Importantly, the solution is easy enough to be implemented by any F&B outlet.

Since their pre-qualification in December last year, beyond Five Star Chicken Rice, Applied Mesh has already successfully helped 16 F&B merchants comprising 147 outlets and stalls.

"With IMDA's continued support and the strength of the DBS partnership, (we) target to get 3,000 outlets on board over the next two years,” said Applied Mesh’s Business Development Manager Eric Koh confidently.

SMEs who are ready to implement more advanced digital technologies can partner IMDA and a solutions provider to apply new and emerging solutions, such as smart sensors and autonomous systems, which have the potential to be adopted on a wide scale within a sector.

A springboard to overseas markets

Beyond improving productivity, SMEs are also banking on technology to grow their businesses overseas. Nanyang Old Coffee, which specialises in traditionally brewed coffee, uses a QR code that accompanies its range of chilli pastes, kaya jams and instant coffees for its China exports.

Chinese consumer concerns about food safety and authenticity meant Nanyang had to find a solution that helps reassure buyers. The QR code acts both as a verifier for concerned buyers and gives the company a means to track inventory and analyse sales data.

“There can be counterfeit Singapore brands in China too. When we went in, we took into consideration how we could stop anyone from counterfeiting Singapore products,” said Nanyang Old Coffee's founder, Lim Eng Lam. The QR code solution was launched with the help of IMDA pre-qualified solution provider veriTAG.

The systems’ inventory tracking and analysis allows Nanyang to move faster in re-stocking inventory, thereby boosting sales. “If a product sells out quickly in a particular area, we may send in more stocks. That is how we can use data to help make our operations more efficient. The QR code system was worthwhile for our business,” said Mr Lim.

As more SMEs like Nanyang Old Coffee, Five Star and Soo Kee implement digital solutions with the help of government initiatives, these have the potential to filter down to other industry players, helping boost the performance of entire sectors.

Said Five Star's Ms Yeo, "Government support is vital especially with new ideas or innovation investment. After all, a solution that works for us, will most likely work for our peers in the sector as well.”

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