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Wed, June 16, 2010
The Straits Times

His goal: Fix customers' every problem

By Francis Chan

Latest figures from the Department of Statistics show that in 2008, the local retail sector generated some $26.2 billion in operating receipts. But to keep the cash registers ringing, retailers will need to find new ways to give shoppers a better customer experience.

In the fifth of a six-part fortnightly series sponsored by Spring Singapore, Francis Chan and Marissa Lee look at two fast-growing retail chains which are betting on service quality improvements to gain new ground in the retail space.

WHEN Mr Low Cheong Kee, 46, joined the family hardware and paint business in Geylang Serai 20 years ago, he was shocked by how it was run.

Everything, from where the merchandise was stored, to prices and stock levels, was kept in his parents' heads.

"So if someone stepped into the store and asked for a type of screw or hinge, I would have to dig and dig to find it, just to sell it for 50 cents," said Mr Low.

"I would also have to memorise all the price codes in Chinese, because my parents didn't use price tags."

Fast forward to this year, and the mom-and-pop store founded by Mr Low's grandfather in the 1960s is now a major retail brand across South-east Asia.

From a single Home-Fix shop run solo by Mr Low in 1993, the company has mushroomed. It now employs more than 280 people.

It currently has 21 Home-Fix stores in Singapore, seven in Malaysia and one in Indonesia. And it is not stopping there.

To support its future expansion plans, a brand-new Home-Fix complex is being built next to its 12,000 sq ft head office and warehouse in Tai Seng Avenue.

When completed next March, the 120,000 sq ft building will house the company's corporate and logistics operations and act as a regional distribution hub.

According to Mr Low, Home-Fix has recorded a compounded annual revenue growth rate of about 12 per cent over the last three years, despite the downturn.

"We noticed that this trade is pretty recession-proof, because when times are bad, people stay at home and undertake home improvement projects. That makes our sales go up," he said.

Recognising that the company has almost reached its saturation point with 21 stores in Singapore, Mr Low, its managing director, has a two-pronged approach to ensure robust growth continues into the future.

The first part of his strategy involves expanding beyond Singapore to markets geographically close enough for him to effectively manage and control the quality of goods and services.

"We have shifted our emphasis to Malaysia and Indonesia, owing much to the rising business costs here," he admitted.

"But if there are other locations (in Singapore) like the new mall in Serangoon Gardens, where we are opening our 22nd store at the year end, we will still consider."

The other part is to think of new ways to engage consumers in an effort to "sell solutions" to them.

To cater to different groups of customers, Mr Low has in the past made it a point to vary the merchandise sold according to the location of branches.

In this way, a Home-Fix in a heartland mall would offer more indoor plants to cater to customers living in nearby Housing Board flats. And a store serving areas with a high concentration of landed properties would offer items like landscaping and outdoor barbecue equipment.

To attract more women to his stores - he thinks they have more decision-making power as far as household matters are concerned - he recently organised a Ladies Nite at the company's flagship store in Marina Square. "We did special product demonstrations and offered promotions for our female customers," he said.

"But what was important for us was that we managed to receive 108 completed survey forms during the event to help us understand them better."

To take customer engagement to the next level, Home-Fix recently adopted an internal programme supported by the Customer-Centric Initiative (CCI).

The CCI is a government scheme led by enterprise development agency Spring Singapore which supports companies committed to service excellence and raising service standards in their industries.

"We are about halfway through our CCI project... and we are now relooking at our CRM (customer relationship management) system to find better ways to engage our customers," said Mr Low.

His latest plan involves an elaborate data-mining process to create "customer personas", which will lead to more targeted marketing efforts.

"We are working on a customer membership base of about 80,000 and we are in the process of validating the personas created so far," he said.

In the meantime, Mr Low is beefing up customer service at his stores - an initiative that became a higher priority after a recent study trip to the United States.

"Singaporeans by nature are more reactive than proactive, so to provide better customer service, we need to change that," said Mr Low, who returned from Portland and Seattle two weeks ago.

During the US trip led by Spring Singapore, Mr Low met executives from American corporate giants such as Nike, Nordstrom and Starbucks.

"They were all very open to sharing and I was really moved by one of the guys from Starbucks who said, 'It's about people serving people'," recounted Mr Low.

"And that is something I have been telling my guys over here ever since I came back."

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