Food, glorious comfort food: How going digital will help F&B thrive

Written by Cherry Huang, Alipay’s General Manager for Global Merchant Partnership, South and Southeast Asia. Originally published in Singapore’s Business Times on December 24, 2020.

One can never overstate the importance of food as a source of comfort, especially in this socially-distanced world — keto meals delivered to the office, spicy hotpot with friends (with social distancing measures observed), a slice of pandan cake from the neighbourhood bakery while working from home. Beyond simple nourishment, these familiar tastes help us cope with stress, bring people closer together, and strengthen our resolve as the world seeks recovery.

But the reality is food services, so critical in preserving and bringing us our favourite cuisines, is struggling, since majority of the sector is comprised of more-vulnerable small businesses. It is crucial to find innovative ways to support these F&B businesses, as the coronavirus sped up and created permanent changes in consumer habits.

One significant trend that we have seen is that consumers, especially the younger generations in Asia, are becoming more digital in all aspects of their daily lives. Deloitte found that young adults aged 21–40 are the leading force enabling the rapid adoption of a digital life in the region, with 78 per cent indicating they have increased their use of digital services since the pandemic.

For traditional F&B business, digital platforms and technology provide an additional channel to attract and engage with these consumers. For example, as the pandemic intensified in Asia, delivery platform Fly-Food came up with a solution in partnership with Alipay to help hard-hit restaurants in Thailand that specialise in Chinese cuisine to connect with expatriates from China.

Since early 2020, Thailand-based Fly-Food has intensified its focus on serving expats living and working in Thailand with the launch of a mini program on Alipay; the company anticipated an increase in demand as widespread travel

The start-up’s quick action paid off. Despite the pandemic leading to fewer tourists, Fly-food currently records an average of 700 orders per day and has attracted more restaurants to join its platform. 40 per cent of its current pool of 1,500 restaurants joined the platform after Covid-19 broke out, and some earn more than half of their revenue from orders through Fly-Food.

The story of Fly-Food is a timely reminder for businesses to keep customers at the core and top-of-mind when building a digital strategy.

The adage of “location, location, location” holds true even in the digital era. Businesses have to be where their customers are. Today that means not only having a digital presence, but one that is visible and easily searchable by customers, be it on food delivery apps, digital life services platforms, or your own website.

Take the case of TrueMoney, a leading digital wallet in Thailand, which introduced its “Shop near me” feature during the pandemic to allow users to conveniently locate local businesses including nearby small street stores and F&B outlets. This helped to ensure that people could get their daily sustenance and needs without consumers having to travel far. The feature was just as beneficial to businesses in helping them to gain visibility.

Anther digitalisation trend that has emerged in F&B is how more brick-and-mortar businesses are increasingly leveraging e-commerce platforms, including through the sales of digital goods such as dining vouchers to convert online shoppers to offline diners.

Consumers today are also increasingly placing emphasis on protecting their health and finding ways to minimise physical interaction while looking towards reliable services to avoid disruptions in their daily life.

This requires businesses to tap on digital technologies to achieve better resilience and sustainability. Online reservation capabilities, digital payments, an agile delivery network are all key aspects to consider when building a digital business strategy and ensuring safe, reliable and efficient operations.

A lot of credit goes to governments in the region who have made an intentional push to assist businesses in this area. In its 2021 Budget, Singapore’s government declared its intention to set aside S$1 billion for new schemes and enhanced support to co-fund mature enterprises’ adoption of digital solutions and new technologies. Its Hawkers Go Digital program launched in June 2020 has also seen great momentum — nearly a third of the 18,000 hawker stalls nationwide have come onboard as of August 2020.

Global digital platforms can come together with technology start-ups, to find new ways of helping local businesses reach their customers — be it through food delivery, online order and pick up at store, seats reservations or by making marketing and promotions easier and more efficient. By working together and creating synergies through the innovative use of digital technologies, the F&B sector can eventually thrive and pivot into a new and promising future.

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