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Wed, June 16, 2010
The Straits Times

Si, branding and innovation make it a cut above

By Marissa Lee

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.

OVER the years, home-grown fashion label Bysi International has made a name for itself delivering chic apparel to women at affordable prices.

But in an industry well known for its cut-throat competitiveness, price alone is less than half the battle.

That is why Mr Tan Yew Kiat, 34, Bysi's founder and managing director, has focused heavily on innovation and brand development ever since the company opened its first store at Tiong Bahru Plaza in 1998, with $60,000 in seed capital.

Half of this sum came on credit from suppliers at a Hong Kong garment factory, and the other half was contributed by his mother.

"Bysi's promise to customers is: 'A new woman every day', and we have engaged in branding projects since Day One to get that right," said Mr Tan, who juggles his hectic business life with being a father of four.

The company's strategy of staying ahead of the game seems to have worked, if its rapid rate of growth is anything to go by.

Today, Bysi has 14 outlets in Singapore and about 30 more worldwide, including franchise stores in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and the Philippines.

This year also marks Bysi's entry into two new markets: Iran and South Korea.

Twenty more stores are set to open in different parts of the world by the end of this year. This includes two here - at Marina Bay Sands and the upcoming nex mall in Serangoon Central.

"We will not stop constantly exploring markets to unlock bigger doors," proclaimed a proud Mr Tan. "Anything is possible. We're working with the right partners, leveraging a lot of agencies and associations."

A few years back, the Government subsidised 50 per cent of Bysi's $100,000 investment in brand development through agency Spring Singapore.

But with new markets come new challenges, and, as Mr Tan said: "This year, our biggest challenge is research and development."

He explained that Bysi's expertise initially lay in South-east Asian markets, where clothing designs are not subject to the vagaries of seasonal change.

To prepare for its entry into Beijing and Shanghai earlier this year, however, the company had to set to work developing its own patented fabrics for use in winterwear, so customers can strut through autumn and winter in style.

Another factor when going global: People from different parts of the world have different builds, so Bysi has worked at customising clothing sizes to fit people in different regions.

So far, customers like what they see. Last year, revenue stood at close to $18 million, and Mr Tan expects this number to hit $30 million to $50 million by 2012.

Passion, he believes, will help him achieve that lofty goal.

After all, in the very beginning, it was a passion for fashion that transformed a young Mr Tan, who was a delivery driver for his merchandiser mother (his father was a banker), into an entrepreneur. That, and hard work.

Said Mr Tan: "Fashion is something that depends a lot on your creativity. There's no fixed policies, there's no definite answer for whether this piece of clothing will sell or not. You must really study the market trend well."

Bysi targets women aged 20 to 45, and carries different labels to cater to particular tastes within that niche.

Looking ahead, Mr Tan's focus is how to upgrade the brand for the new generation. Part of the answer lies in a planned Bysi scholarship for students in the fashion industry and sales staff.

By sponsoring their studies, Mr Tan hopes to groom graduates here into future Bysi designers and merchandisers.

The firm has six designers based in Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China, along with factories making its clothes in Guangzhou, China. In total, it has more than 90 employees here and about 120 worldwide.

If there is one thing Mr Tan emphasises above all else, it is the importance of committed service staff at retail outlets.

"The second syllable 'si' in Bysi means 'yes' in Italian and it's supposed to encourage a 'say yes' service attitude among the staff. So Bysi means you're served by people who say 'yes'."

"You must enjoy selling," he tells his staff, and work towards exceeding customers' expectations.

Bysi's human resources department is working with the Singapore Workforce Development Agency and Spring Singapore to train staff and improve their customer service competencies.

On top of that, Bysi is overhauling its customer relationship programme, which includes 50,000 customers who have signed up as members. This has involved the purchase of Retail Pro, a software system that helps enhance workflow.

No detail is spared as the company reviews its customer strategy.

Mr Tan is always on the lookout for new ways to "catch the eye" of potential customers, and it seems these methods can be olfactory as well.

"We are creating a new store fragrance so that when people walk into any of our stores, they will know it's a Bysi store," he explained.

Of course, in retail, as in life, there is no single strategy to success.

Said Mr Tan: "It's an ongoing thing. A strategy can be good for today, but if the whole team do not make it their habit to improve, then there is no strategy.

"The consistent upgrading of your existing strategy and coming up with new strategies is very crucial."

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