Digitalisation: Pandemic pushes tech upgrade in last old-school frontier

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 25, 2021 - January 31, 2021.
Digitalisation: Pandemic pushes tech upgrade in last old-school frontier
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During the first Movement Control Order (MCO) last year, NZ Curry House CEO Muhamad Noor Zainal Muhamad Zabidi was slow to understand how it would affect his business. As with many, he had expected the lockdown to last for only two weeks.

As a mamak restaurant chain that relies heavily on dine-in customers, his business took a massive hit. They were allowed only takeaways and deliveries, which could not cover the sales lost as a result of the MCO.

“[During that period,] we did have one or two customers coming in during the evenings. Afternoons did not really perform any better, because we had lost the office worker crowd. And then there was the [Ramadan] fasting month as well, which reduced our walk-in customers even more,” says Zainal.

This is in stark contrast to the FIFA World Cup football season, where all eight outlets of NZ Curry House would usually see full-house nights as Malaysians flock to mamak restaurants to watch the matches.

From his observation, most players in this industry lost 80% to 90% of their sales during the MCO period. For mamak restaurants that offered delivery services, he estimates that they would have recovered 10% to 15% of their sales, but would still have seen their sales being slashed by more than half compared with before the MCO.

"The goal is first to get merchants on board and make them comfortable with digitalisation, and then slowly help them incorporate more digital initiatives.” - Chin

After the initial two-week lockdown, Zainal understood the severity of the pandemic and proceeded with cost-cutting measures and the strict enforcement of Covid-19-related standard operating procedures (SOPs).

These issues are not unique to this industry, Zainal says, but are affecting the entire F&B industry. He points out that NZ Curry House has several outlets in malls and office buildings, and multiple retail owners in the buildings have got together and set up WhatsApp groups to support each other in this time of need.

In these groups, the participants share weekly updates and business tips on complying with the new SOPs. But it is also within these groups that the topic of digitalisation started gaining momentum.

Beyond just digital payments

Zainal says digitalising the payment options was his top priority, as customers and workers were afraid of handling physical cash during the pandemic. He decided to collaborate with Revenue Monster, a homegrown fintech company that provides a unified payment solution for businesses.

By combining QR codes, digital and mobile app payments, smart terminals and application programming interfaces (APIs), Revenue Monster eliminates the merchant’s need to adopt multiple credit card terminals and point-of-sales (POS) software to manage the different payment channels. The solution also accepts mobile payments from e-wallets such as Alipay, Boost, GrabPay and Touch ’n Go. 

Revenue Monster also assists merchants in setting up loyalty programmes through social media platforms. Instead of developing a standalone app, it uses WeChat Official Accounts and Facebook Messenger to enable digital memberships, loyalty points, vouchers and even prepaid cards with the help of QR codes.

"The most difficult part of adopting new digital solutions is to change the mindset of staff and customers.” - Zainal

Revenue Monster CEO Amanda Chin tells Digital Edge that different businesses are at different stages of digital transformation. As such, it was difficult to find a single-party solution to address all of their digitalisation needs, which prompted her to launch à la carte — a piecemeal business operations solution that transforms traditional retail businesses into online digital stores.

“With à la carte, you can pick and choose which service is relevant to your business. You might already have a website and are in need of a POS solution. A month down the road, you might want to set up a loyalty programme. Maybe, you would like to set up an online store from scratch,” says Chin.

“Digital transformation is truly a step-by-step process, and we want to make the process as frictionless as possible by not overwhelming SMEs (small and medium enterprises) with digital jargon and initiatives. The goal is first to get merchants on board and make them comfortable with digitalisation, and then slowly help them incorporate more digital initiatives.”

Other than providing an open logistic infrastructure, payments platforms and loyalty programmes, à la carte also allows merchants to set up a digital store, where customers can browse and order menu items online. It helps expand the merchant’s sales channels to include walk-ins, pick-ups, drive-throughs and deliveries.

With the drive-through feature, for example, the customer only needs to key in their number plate, and the merchant will facilitate the drop-off directly to the vehicle once it has arrived. As for delivery options, Revenue Monster has partnered with third-party last-mile providers GrabExpress and MrSpeedy.

Zainal says he chose to partner with Revenue Monster because of its open API integration feature, which allows his business to continue using its existing POS system, rather than adopting a new app or terminal provided by Revenue Monster.

“To be honest, the most difficult part of adopting new digital solutions is to change the mindset of staff and customers. We have our own in-house POS system, and we did not want to retrain the staff and cashiers for all of the branches, which would take a lot of time, effort and money,” says Zainal.

“So, I was looking for a solution that is seamless, quick and easy to implement, and I am glad to know that I do not have to change my current POS system. That is the most important factor because our staff need to know how to use the solution; only then can the customer experience the benefits of seamless payments.”

According to Zainal, many businesses in the F&B industry have yet to embrace digitalisation even though the pandemic has forced them out of their comfort zone. Many of them find the process intimidating, and mamak outlets have started adopting POS systems only in the last decade.

He believes, however, that it is important for businesses to be sensitive to market changes and adapt accordingly. In fact, Zainal discloses that he has considered installing ordering terminals in his restaurants, similar to the ones found in McDonald’s, and is in talks with Revenue Monster to devise a solution.

Asked whether such an ordering system will disrupt the “mamak culture” so beloved of Malaysians, he says this culture was already disrupted before the pandemic.

“I am not sure if you are aware, but times are already changing. People no longer watch football at the mamak as much as before, and the number of visitors has dwindled by a lot,” says Zainal.

“If anything, they prefer inviting their friends over to their home and streaming the sports programme over their phones or laptops. This trend has been going on for about six years already; so, eventually, ‘mamak culture’ will change. But, it will transform into something you won’t find elsewhere in the world, and we want to be prepared for that.”