Singapore, like the rest of the world, has their hands full in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen a torrent of change, and adjustments to our way of life happen in quick succession. From the announcement of “Circuit Breaker” measures on the 3rd of April which led to closure and suspensions of businesses, to the announcement of its extension along with greater business restrictions.
Marking a drastic downturn, Singapore’s initial -2.8% GDP forecast given by DBS on the 26th of March has been replaced by -5.7% a month later.
Today the future seems bleak. Embracing a bunker mentality seems an attractive option. There are too many variables to consider, with little clarity on what the future will hold. So just clinging on and waiting, seems like a good bet.
Despite these changes, I want to say the pandemic will end. The world will change, and we will change too. Some things we all began to do whilst we were fighting the spread of Covid-19 will stay with us. Some changes will be positive as we realise how inter-connected our lives are and how we rely on others to do the right thing as individuals, families, countries, and societies.
So how do we become the positive change we want to see? How can we grow? How can we find opportunity in chaos, and ensure our businesses are well placed as we emerge on the other side of this crisis?
Consumer behaviour is and will continue to rapidly change. Research firm IGD Asia had predicted Singapore’s online grocery market to triple in growth from $130m in 2017 to $0.5b by 2020, from S$130m (US$91m) to $0.5b (US$0.35bn) by 2020. A growth expedited by COVID-19, where RedMart’s weekly average number of orders tripled, whilst FairPrice said that demand for online orders exceeded that during the Lunar New Year period. The upper limit of the rate of e-commerce adoption has definitely been raised, a change which most companies have not even begun to fully explore. History shows that such changes are often not temporary and that crisis can fundamentally reshape our beliefs and behaviour for the long term in short spaces of time.
If consumers and habits in Singapore are changing so rapidly, two things are obvious. Simply clinging on and hoping things will more or less go back to the way things were is no longer an attractive option. Secondly, by being purely defensive in mindset, you will miss opportunities that this period of unprecedented disruption will present. This is backed up by data from the last recession – companies that aggressively tried to transform their business say on average a 4% increase in earnings compared to those who took a more passive approach.
Looking back at recent history – periods of crisis and disruption have offered unique opportunities for companies. What do Disney, Apple, CNN, Patagonia, Uber and Airbnb have in common? They all started out in periods of disruption or recession, tapping into consumer frustrations that existing offerings were not meeting.
Conversely there are plenty of companies that at points in time seemed unassailable that have ceased to exist. They were unable to anticipate or identify the changing wants and needs of their customers or were unable to successfully pivot into meeting their future needs.
So what can we do as business owners to ensure we stay relevant and identify new growth opportunities that the post-pandemic world will provide?
1. Be on the right side of history. In a CNBC interview, Mark Cuban mentioned how companies treat workers during this pandemic could define their brand ‘for decades’. What happens to brands and businesses after the pandemic will be heavily influenced by what they did during it. It has never been more important to have your company’s purpose defined and understood by your consumers.
2. Focus on the future. Embrace the changes that are undoubtedly coming and look to the future. Don’t waste energy wishing for a return to the way things used to be. An immediate focus on the here and now should not come at the expense of planning for the future.
3. Identify shifting needs. Understand shifts in societal behaviour and how these can be linked to business opportunities. It is possible to predict the future by identifying consumer frustrations. Businesses who succeed at this can launch new products and services to meet these demands before others have even identified them as needs. This needs to encompass more than just asking consumers what they want – a problem encapsulated by Henry Ford’s classic quote, “If I would have asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” Consumers may not be able to fully articulate their new and emerging frustrations – so businesses need to be able to map them before developing new products and services to alleviate them.
4. Leverage big data. Use data sources more holistically and combine different kinds of data to create a fuller picture. Now is not the time to guess. Use of statistical or episodical data to identify patterns of change will be difficult. Big, high-frequency data is more useful and will often tell you what is happening. If you combine this with small data sources that shed light on the why, it is possible to build robust and compelling insights that reveal emerging trends with a high degree of confidence.
5. Have a plan to invest in the right innovation. Businesses must remain optimistic and avoid paralysis caused by fear of failure. The pandemic is an unprecedented crisis but it’s not a reason to postpone innovation and investment. In previous periods of crisis, it is often the companies that maintain a focus on the future and innovation that prosper once the crisis has passed. The key challenge is to ensure you have the right data from consumers to confidently identify areas where you can find addressable business opportunities. You may have more than one chance to get it right, but better to get it right the first time.
The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect this publication's view, and this article is not edited by Singapore Business Review. The author was not remunerated for this article.
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Lucien Harrington is the managing director for Asia Pacific at LynxEye.
He is an award-winning and performance-driven business leader with extensive experience of leading and managing business development and growth strategies for globally recognised organisations, including Disney and Time Warner as well as assisting clients including banks, airlines, automotive and luxury identify and implement transformational growth opportunities.