In Singapore and across the region, it is not uncommon to find elderly grandparents convincing their ill family members to drink dark bitter tonics and flavourful herbal soups in a bid to improve their health. As an ancient system of health and wellness, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can be seen by many as an old and outdated practice. Yet, Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall, a traditional family-run business has shown that all it takes is a dose of technology to redefine TCM for the future.
In this feature, find out how Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall, with the help from the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s (IMDA) SMEs Go Digital team, was able to blend tradition and technology to ramp up efficiency and engage new audiences—both locally and abroad—through an online store.
Evolving with the digital economy
Located on the first floor of a housing block in Bukit Batok East and nestled between a tailor and a fruit shop, Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall was founded by second generation TCM specialist Mdm Ng Sock Eng in 1957. Mdm Ng aimed to provide one of the most comprehensive collections of herbs in Singapore with each herbal concoction hand-picked and carefully measured for accurate and effective remedies.
Now that she is 93 years old, Mdm Ng’s son, Mr Lee Chin Siong, and daughter-in-law, Mdm Chye Nyuk Lian, run the store with their son. Collectively, they are a team of herbal specialists with over 100 years of TCM experience between them.
Over the years, the store gained credibility and a small loyal following among the senior residents of the neighbourhood. However, in 2019, the owners realised that they would need to branch out to reach new audiences and sustain the store.
“The lease on the store was ending in a few years and our conventional business model would not be enough to keep Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall competitive. Digital solutions seemed like the way to get out of the small neighbourhood.”
Mr Lee Chin Siong
With their location limiting their reach, manpower constraints and long waiting times during peak hours, Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall began to look for solutions that could help them gain a competitive edge over large TCM chain stores that benefit from greater economies of scale.
Making digitalisation simple
As the owner of a traditional business, Mr Lee did not initially consider digital solutions and online sales particularly important—especially before COVID-19. With Mr Lee and most of their staff in their 70s, an abacus was the counting tool of choice and a store email address seemed unnecessary and complicated.
Looking to expand their reach, Mr Lee and his family decided to set up a simple website that would catalogue their products and help customers from other neighbourhoods find their store. However, with IMDA’s SMEs Go Digital pre-approved solutions that integrated e-commerce functions into website solutions, Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall was able to go beyond setting up an informational website to starting up their very own e-commerce site.
While Mr Lee and his family were sceptical at first—believing that an English e-commerce TCM website would not be relevant for their existing client-base – their decision to digitalise soon proved to be a critical lifeline for the business.
A year later, when COVID-19 lockdowns were implemented, Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall was one of the few TCM stores ready to operate in an online world with a fully functional e-commerce site and an online payment system.
In fact, the website even has a virtual tour of the store—complete with educational descriptions of the traditional tools and herbs used. The virtual tour, along with the store’s family values described on the home page maintain the authenticity and tradition of stepping into a TCM hall without customers ever leaving their homes.
Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall also implemented cashless payment, despite initial hesitation from older staff and Mr Lee. To get everyone on board and comfortable with the new systems, the solution vendor provided training for the store’s staff to gain confidence using smart devices and cashless payment modes. The training also included e-commerce operations and website management—ensuring each digital solution was valuable and sustainable for the business.
“As the months progressed, we were convinced that cashless payment can attract even more business and have now signed up for more cashless payment options, like PayNow and Shopee Pay, on our own,”
Additionally, IMDA also provided support through the SMEs Go Digital programme across branding, online strategies, web development and content creation to improve efficiency and further expand their audience.
Since going digital, Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall has seen great success unlocking new markets and reaching new customers. In fact, currently 20 per cent of the store’s revenue comes from online sales. Productivity has also spiked with seamless payment processes.
Interestingly, the store that once depended on neighbourhood regulars now has customers from all across Singapore as well as overseas online orders from the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and Vietnam. As TCM becomes more well-known across the globe, Heng Foh Tong remains ahead of the curve with their ability to ship internationally and the use of English as the primary language.
Despite operating in a typically traditional industry, the owners at Heng Foh Tong Medical Hall were able to bravely embark on a digitalisation journey that allowed them to solve challenges and pave the way for international success.
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