The Future of E-Commerce: The Gaps to be Filled and Upcoming Changes

Exploring ideas regarding “The Future of E-Commerce”, Firoze M Zahidur Rahman, CEO & Chief Solutions Architect of Loosely Coupled Technologies, joined a webinar along with esteemed panellists Lim Ben-Jie, Head of e-Commerce of AirAsia and Adlin Yusman, MD of Endeavour Malaysia. Organized by BDO Malaysia, the webinar covered topics such as the changing consumer trends, the evolution of e-commerce platforms, pricing strategies etc. Watch it here.

EZAssist is a platform that helps micro SMEs set up online shops and uses AI chatbots to enhance the customer experience. Interestingly, the chatbots have different personalities. Firoze says, “I started my journey as an entrepreneur in my 3rd year of university. I’ve always been involved with tech, initially in the financial sector, serving telcos and other companies. Now, with EZAssist, I serve small businesses who are really going through a huge digital transformation at this time, with changing needs and the rise of e-commerce.”

Andrew Tan, the moderator for this discussion, posed a question to Ben-Jie, 

“In this discussion we want to look at e-commerce from the merchants’ perspectives, as well as the customers. Do you think merchants now look at e-commerce differently? No longer just another channel, but the channel of sales? AirAsia is now onboarding different merchants now too, and it’d be interesting if you told us a bit about that.”

Lim Ben-Jie answered, “Being in the travel agency, we previously did not find a need to have any merchants with us. But now we’re onboarding restaurants and some other merchants with us, even beauty related products. This is all a part of our transformation from being a travel platform to a lifestyle one. E-commerce was always incremental to businesses, but now it’s integral. Platforms and e-commerce are becoming the primary source of revenue for many industries. During the first wave of COVID, the businesses that adapted to e-commerce the fastest, got the most business. I was talking to an owner of a small restaurant that is doing very well right now. They were doing 100% of their usual sales, but things are so different. With e-commerce you have more options. But embracing e-commerce is how businesses are still staying afloat.”

You deal with SMEs as well. From welcoming customers walking in physically, to now chatting with them without a face or with very little emotions. How do you think this lack of emotions is playing into the process?

Firoze responds, “Actually, where we play it’s a conversational commerce rather than just going into an app and placing an order. Because purchases have an emotional touch and when you interact over a messaging channel, you’re making an emotional connection too. With small businesses, they usually have a base of loyal customers. You know your corner shop, and you know the owner of that shop. You buy from them often, you just tell them what you need. The conversation is easy. So, chatting is easier for consumers. The merchants with us are used to using whatsapp and messenger to make sales and communicate with their customers. The social journey for the purchase bridges the emotional connection. And I think that chatting or directly communicating with customers makes the technology adaptation easier for small businesses as well. Learning e-commerce, open orders, etc. is actually difficult for small businesses. But when things are more conversational, it’s easier to get started.”

Tell us a bit about your chatbots.

Firoze responded, “It’s actually very simple. If you’re a restaurant, we have off the shelf chatbots that can just be activated on different channels. The beauty of the chatbot is that it can retrieve information by itself, if you just update your listings, then a customer can come and as an example, say ‘I want nasi lemak,’ and the bot will retrieve the information on this product to show to the user. For the merchant it’s easy to update. But the biggest challenge for merchants is digitalization itself. Sometimes they cannot update these descriptions and photos. We have specialists closely working with them to make the process easier. Sometimes they just send the photos and descriptions to us and we update it for them. Our people help them to set up the shop. The whole experience here is multi-channel, and these days that’s very important. Nowadays you have to sell in your shop, on Lazada, and on different platforms anyway and on top of that you want your own direct access to customers. With small businesses, customers are well-known to the merchants. So reaching out over their own channel is something we’re helping them out with.”

“This shift to e-commerce has a lot to do with data. Who the customers are, what they’re wanting. Adlin, what type of profiling and behavioral analysis are being done based on this data collection?”

Adlin responded, “In terms of my fear of the amount of data that social platforms are mining, this data leads to their learning your buying patterns. We’re all familiar with making a search for something online and then getting ads for that product constantly. When Groupon started and brought an e-commerce wave in Malaysia, or dare I say all of ASEAN, we were just happy to have products being delivered. It was new, the logistics were not all sorted, you couldn’t get same day deliveries like today, and people were just hoping and praying that their products would come on time. But today, it’s all about repeat purchases. Customer acquisition is getting more expensive day by day. It’s a share of wallet, how many apps do you have that involve you buying things? You make most of your purchases with your number 1 and 2 apps, then your purchase dramatically tapers off with the number 3 and 4 apps. Groupon was one of the leaders in 2012, and Lazada more recently, and I was also a part of building the foundation for Lazada. I’m very integrated with the older e-commerce of Malaysia, I now fall in the geriatric category. Back then, it was difficult to bring merchants on to our platform. Nowadays it’s about how much repeat purchase you are able to ensure, and how much data you can provide. You also need consent from people to get that data now. And I’m not a big fan of letting people know what I’m buying simply because you can get hacked, or there can be data breaches.”

Obviously, AirAsia is very big on data. But how do you use that data responsibly and what checks and balances are in place? Because you have the power in guiding the customer experience. What is AirAsia doing in this space?”

Ben-Jie replied, “Everyone is asking today, what is happening to my data? We are fortunate to have the first to adapt to e-commerce in the travel agency, no one else had sold tickets online before AirAsia came and did it way back in the day. At that time people weren’t confident to use their credit cards online. And that was 19 years ago, and we did manage to collect a lot of data. But we used all of it internally, we never exposed any of the data collected. Social platforms have done so, but we have not. We use it internally to build additional businesses. We started BigPay, we started our food and grocery delivery services, and we used the data to make the experience better for our own customers. And the data is taken with consent. We will not send any promotional emails if you hadn’t consented to it, and we’ll only send the essential flight information. And we have upheld our promise of never externally using this data. We are giving good value to customers with the external merchants with us.

How do you ensure that the customer experience is not overly guided? Should there be checks in place for the use of this data?”

Adlin answers, “I think when it comes to being guided, these cross-selling and cross-marketing apps are the social platforms. But you are by nature a hodgepodge of different vertices, and that’s where the guided notion comes to question. Back in the day when you purchased something from Amazon, you would get recommendations or suggestions. ‘Are you interested in this product?’ and you could see similar suggestions to what you bought or searched for before. That was the recommendation engine, or as the cool kids call it, the reco engine. So if a customer ends up putting something in the cart from this recommendation then it does have relevance. But it’s a slippery slope between a product I’m interested in, and then getting fifteen different recommendations or pop ups asking if I want to buy this or that. An example here, if you order dominos’ pizza, the app is very annoying. You’re hungry, you place an order for a pizza, but before that a new pop-up comes up asking if you want to buy garlic bread. If I wanted garlic bread, I would’ve gotten it, I don’t want to have to cut out this extra page to get to my checkout. So, if you’re going to have a recommendation engine, you have to do it right. I think if the journey is within that scope of ‘this is cool for me’ but not on that annoying level, then it’s fine. 

What areas of e-commerce platforms are getting more investment to fuel the growth. The pandemic has obviously fueled the growth of e-commerce, but what else is being worked on?”

Firoze answers, “I think the pandemic has brought consumers over to e-commerce a lot, but for the merchants, most of their strategies still revolve around giving discounts to attract customers. People are just crazily subsidizing their online sales. So if you ask me, I still haven’t seen too much of a change for merchants, it’s still all about buying out the market, buying out the customers. From an e-commerce point of view, they’re just buying out customers, and hoping that the customers will still be there when this phase is over. I don’t know when this phase will be over because every day the market becomes even more competitive. But, a good side to this is that the consumers are learning. They are being open to e-commerce and there is a mental shift in how people think about e-commerce. A trust between people and e-commerce is developing. 

Now, where we should be looking at for growth is bringing in quality merchants. What I mean by that is, see, when we buy groceries or daily necessities, we are used to buying from supershops or corner shops. E-commerce is replacing that. But, when you look at our purchase baskets, we buy from boutiques, specialized purchases, etc. and this is something that is not very familiar to the market. And this is kind of difficult because when you go grocery shopping and there is a corner with very nice clothing, the two purchases require two very different mindsets. And what Adlin was saying about recommendation engines, how do we really buy? We are all social, we see what our friends and family are buying, what they wear or where they eat. And even with recommendations and ads being bombarded, people become desensitized to them very soon. In the Telecom sector we saw that everyone was shouting about prices. And we realized at one point that if you keep talking only about prices then people stop listening, they know that these brands are bringing these things. And the same is happening with e-commerce these days. People do not see the striked out discount price in bold letters anymore, they want to see what their peers are buying, or leaving good reviews. So I think the shift is somewhere else. The retail experience has to change. The proper network between buyers and sellers has to be built and I think the growth will come from independent players running their own e-commerce. Ben-Jie said it, they were the first in travel to do this. McDonald’s has been doing this too, for ages now, they have their own app or website and you place orders there. I think independent players, the merchants will be taking ownership of their own, because technology is being commoditized. Purchase journeys are also becoming more common. And people will be interacting on this different medium, as they have been interacting over the phone for years already. Adlin said, “People will not install ten different apps on their phone, but a platform is much better while giving ownership to the merchants.” 

“Given where AirAsia is right now, what do you think is the new way to drive sales, and what are you bringing to the market?”

“I think Firoze has brought up a good point, it’s just price and promotion and sales. People are forgetting that service is the key element. We’re trying to find areas where we can be better. Now, AirAsia gives you good quality despite charging you very little. Other businesses are following the same strategy now, to provide good service for a cheaper price. AirAsia offers low fares but we give you good quality. Even with our delivery service, if your item is late then we’ll call you and tell you why, and overall we give good service while being affordable. So, convenience is one factor, good service is also important. A lot of other delivery services are pushing for same day deliveries, but no one has perfected the art. A big deterrent for online shopping versus shopping from stores physically is when you will get the products. There is a wait time between placing an order and receiving the products. So we’re trying to ensure that we get you your products as fast as possible. You’ll be hearing terms like quick commerce these days, rather than e-commerce, because it’s all about how fast and efficient businesses can be in a lot of cases. The differentiating factor is time. You’re buying from home to save the time that you would spend in going to a store. So, with efficient and good service, premium pricing can be charged. People are paying more for a better experience. We know we don’t have unlimited funds and cannot give high discounts. We have been focusing on improving the customer experience, improving the usability of our app and other areas to drive the sales,” answered Ben-Jie.

“Adlin, do you see the convergence of financial services with e-commerce even now? Encouraging GMV, making it easier to afford things, what is your view? Is this a good thing or is this going to encourage the wrong habits?”

“Good question, because my answer is going to be very controversial. I’m not a fan of credit cards to begin with, I think banks could be charging a lot less interest. You’re all overpaying for everything. So, essentially, BNPL (Buy Now Pay Later) is a sin, really. It’s giving the opportunity to people who cannot afford something to buy it now on credit. Now, I think this easy credit option is going to impact the minds of the youth 20 to 25 years down the line. Anything to do with fintech and e-commerce, online shopping, when you BNPL your electronics or your food- I really hope you never have to BNPL your food, obviously- in the long run, I think it’s headed toward making this one-click shopping a dopamine hit for your brain. I would caution against this. I do agree with the ease of use, this easy credit does have some benefits but I cannot always support this and not just from a religious perspective, just the values it portrays to society,” answered Adlin. 

“Do you see an emergence of a new segment where people who would previously wait and save for something can now purchase immediately? Do you see that as a good thing or not?”

Adlin responded, “I’m in financial literacy, right? This is similar to giving a credit card to your 5 year old daughter. What will she do? Spend it all on credit, buying whatever she wants. They don’t know the value of money. Or the value of debt. How many people read the fineprint that the credit card company sends to you? Similarly, people won’t read the fineprint. This BNPL, you’re giving it to guys who aren’t eligible to get credit cards, how would they know what they’re even getting into? This is an avenue that we should be very careful about and educate the people about.”

“What about Ben-Jie and Firoze? This obviously helps with the GMV, but how do you at the same time also promote responsible spending?”

“I think one-click purchases are convenient but when it comes to credit facilities, it totally comes down to the financial literacy of the particular person. If you look at the types of purchases that they make, there are certain things which are assets that would add value to you. If it’s gadgets like phones or laptops, which are not luxury but rather needed to gain more output or use for work purposes these days, then these credit facilities will open up a lot of avenues for growth and more importantly will help the person. But of course if someone starts buying a Rolex on credit, then that’s where things fall apart. Fancy things or luxury items on credit must be avoided. But, if the item is a necessity and will help the person eventually earn, then that I think is beneficial. If there is some regulation or even governance on the kinds of items that can be purchased through credit, then that would be helpful. You cannot literate everyone, and e-commerce is a space that will proliferate very fast, and I think some governance in this area can be incredibly useful,” commented Firoze. 

“Ben-Jie, do you have any merchants who are even open to BNPL? Does the profile of your merchants even pose the need for BNPL?”

“We are a bit skeptical of BNPL. No mention of BNPL in the near or distant future. In terms of breaking down huge purchases, there are other measures that can be taken. But we care about giving our customers the best rates, loans, credit cards with AirAsia money. A bit more on educating our customers, at AirAsia, my boss used me as an example once that I’m the perfect example of a millennial stingy with money, that needs to know how to spend it wisely. We have our mission to educate the people and teach financial literacy and make sure the money is invested and it grows. From my perspective, BNPL is not something we can go for,” said Ben-Jie.

“Aside from financial services, what else is going to add value to the e-commerce ecosystem in Malaysia? There are existing logistics, online payments, financial services, but what are the gaps?”

Firoze says, in answer to this question, “I think there are quite a few big gaps in the e-commerce segment of Malaysia. I think most e-commerce platforms are very consumer-centric. They are only focused on how they can collect consumers and then monetize these consumers to their merchants. Use the merchants to bring in products and then attract consumers and monetize that through sales from merchants. Initially, you start providing discounts, and then you tell the merchants that they need to provide the discounts or you won’t send them any traffic. This has to change, this is a bubble that is going to burst very soon. The biggest growth area in the ecosystem that we can hope for is platforms that will help merchants reach customers effectively, but at an affordable price. The other thing to look at is, with discounts, you have to look at it like customers do not find your products valuable at the higher price, but buy it when it’s on sale. So either you need to increase the value of the product so that consumers find it suitable to buy at that cost. When you’re selling online, the cost structure is different. You save costs on shop upkeep, rent, salespeople salaries, etc. So, instead of that, you pay for the cost of technology. These days a lot of platforms have variable pricing, if you sell products using the platform, only then will you pay. Aside from that, technology has been commoditized so much these days that you can just pay a few hundred to get your website or e-shop set up. When your cost structure has changed, people also know that you don’t have to pay for showrooms and other things, and they expect that the price will go down. The cost of servicing has reduced too. There is a delivery charge, and you’re charging it to the customer. Basically, merchants have to review the pricing strategies, and come up with an easier way to price products compared to the competition. Merchants do not know how to price their products and merchants don’t know how to reach out to the consumers. Everything has been focused on consumers, and very little focus has been given to the market or the supply side of the equation. I think the marketplaces and platforms have been only focused on consumers, but the small businesses and manufacturers are used to their traditional distribution channels and they need to be digitized too. These businesses are, more often than not, family-run businesses. They cannot just let go of their distribution partners or the people in the ecosystem that they are used to working with so easily. 

So I think there is a lot of gap in this e-commerce value chain from the customer to the producers. I think these financial facilities will come to be very useful for filling these gaps. I think e-commerce so far has done a fantastic job in educating the consumers. So now the supply chain or the value chain has reason to be transformed. I think the years of hard work has led to this point, along with a boost due to the pandemic, to where there is a true need for business transformation. There is much work left to be done here in this process now, I believe.”

“Looking at it from a customer perspective, how is AirAsia making sure that you meet your customers’ needs and wants? The thinking behind the process, to create the ‘stickiness’.”

Ben-Jie comments, “Other players are charging quite high for delivery services. Commissions go up to 30-40%, and when that happens they naturally pass it down to the customers by inflating the prices. So how AirAsia is creating value is efficient internal operations. We are very transparent, we are charging only 15% commission which is at best half of what other players are doing. If you’re familiar with the brand Santan, we have got it on the planes, Firoze’s favourite topping. We also have restaurant franchises all over the places serving this. They were the first to struggle with high commission charges when the lockdown came. They couldn’t make any money at all. And this is when we came to the realization that it’s time to ensure that both the merchants and customers have the opportunity to sustain a business and that there are affordable prices in this important cycle. We push for the lowest price, our delivery fees start from 99 cents and that’s very affordable. Right now we are doing free deliveries in order to help the businesses sustain themselves. 

We hope that the riders behave properly with the customers and we also behave properly with our riders. They get trained and are also given insurance, and they’re thought of as family and they will be able to get flight benefits in the future too, because they are considered a part of the AirAsia family.” 

“Adlin, in your mind, what is the next big thing or the next big business model that you think will take over?”

Adlin says, “The next big business model well Firoze will be building it, right? But jokes aside, there is a company in the US, they are one step ahead. They’re not necessarily e-commerce, but what they are doing is, they look at frequencies of how you browse and ponder and then end up purchasing something. As an example, you use Grab to order food on Monday, and on Tuesday you order pizza, and so on. What this company does is it collects the data, looks at it, and it functions in a manner of predictive analytics, and it says “Hey, Andrew. This is 9:30 on a Wednesday, would you like to order this product? ” I think that’s brilliant. And I think this is Firoze’s forte.”

“Since Firoze is in the spotlight, what do you think of this?”

“I like this concept of pre-purchase and post-purchase, but I have never liked the idea of recommendation engines. I have already purchased something, so my wallet is lighter now and whatever you suggest, I’ll be less prone to buy it. But I think if we can somehow predict what you are going to buy, then I think that can come in extremely handy. 

As an example, when we serve bike or automobile industries, there is a pattern or a purchase journey for buyers. We analyze this purchase journey very well. You would think that it’s a straight-forward journey, but in reality when we analyze it, it’s very complex with many steps and turns. Even the purchase journey of Nasi Lemak may be over a span of 5 to 7 hours. Purchase journeys always take place over a span of time. Even after adding something to your cart, there is a journey before you actually make the payment. So, why does this happen? It’s because in-between, there are many interactions in the environment of a person that happens. So, if there is a way to influence this to change the purchase decisions, or add more to it, then I think that is going to be very very interesting,” responded Firoze. 

“Ben-Jie, what about the future of e-commerce for AirAsia?”

“We are still figuring ourselves out here. E-commerce, for us, is going toward a conversational direction. More and more people are comfortable using voice to place orders. And then, our riders are the backbone, the unsung heroes for us. There are cloud warehouses popping up through Europe, products that are on demand being located near customer homes. Speed is the key these days. There is an urgency for e-commerce players to be more efficient. And lastly, sustainability. We started this business hoping this would be a cash positive business, otherwise it didn’t make sense for us to do so. AirAsia is not a believer in subsidizing. So we want to build a sustainable business,” says Ben-Jie.

Andrew Tan, the moderator, comments, “The next three to five years are going to be very interesting, with 5G coming in, AI and other changes.” 

“David Lai, the Executive Director of BDO, has joined us. Would you like to say something about this discussion?” 

David Lai responds, “E-commerce has brought along a lot of changes to the whole world. The boundaries across the world, the laws to be followed, things are quite blurry these days. The previously followed laws on taxes based on permanent locations of a business are no longer applicable these days. There is a new concept of implementing a global tax amount that is being pushed by Biden and some other governments. 

In Malaysia, service tax is already being implemented for IT services. If you’re providing IT services and your revenue crosses the 500,000 a year threshold, then you need to register for tax. But taxable services also extend to a whole range of other services, and it becomes complicated to define certain parameters. Management, advertising etc. are some taxable services. 

You need to decide whenever you have merchants under you, who needs to bear this tax? And then you price things accordingly. It’s actually meant to be born by the side availing a service, so in these cases either the merchant or the customer.”

Question & Answer Session:

With so many apps in the market, how do you ensure that your app becomes the go-to for the consumers?

Ben-Jie answers, “How do we stand out? We are positioning ourselves as an ASEAN super, not a Malaysian super, but ASEAN. We want to ensure that the services you secure from AirAsia are consistent no matter where you avail it. We are aggressively growing our AirAsia digital business. Focusing on food and delivery services right now. You may only need just one app in the future for a lot of daily needs. It’s our job to educate customers that we are here, we are providing a service. And it’s important to communicate that right.”

What trends do you see, other than SEOs like Google, to drive traffic?

Firoze responds, “At this moment I think social media platforms, I can’t say cheaper or faster, but those are platforms that can drive effective traffic. If you’re trying to sell your Nasi Lemak, SEOs can’t really help. You need people promoting your product and good reviews. You need to post on social media and get the message out there to people. Particularly in the area that we operate, the traders, small businesses and retailers, I think somehow what we have seen, digital marketing techniques, SEOs, etc. are not at all effective. Their products are niche. Your customers are known to you and niche, and for these businesses, the referrals and product champions will be driving the sales for you. We suggest that it’s not cost efficient or effective to pay these digital platforms to do promotions. We recommend that these businesses make it easy for the customers to try out the products. If the product is good, customers end up repurchasing anyway, but for small businesses the hurdle is initially making customers try it out in the first place. Customer loyalty is with your products. Even with Adidas products, during a recent sale I saw people browsing different platforms and going to the original app and seeing where the cheapest price can be found, then people bought it from there. The loyalty was still with Adidas, the brand, and with its products. So customer loyalty always is about the product and the brand. If you ask me, yes sure you can go for SEO and other technical things. But, social media is the way to go these days. 

In the context of e-commerce, what would you think is the right level of cybersecurity for e-commerce? Should it be similar to a high-security level like in banks, or is a retail level with moderate security enough?

“I think comparing this to a bank is a bit extreme because banks have significantly sensitive information, but e-commerce sites have sensitive information too, especially with credit card information, people might hack the login credentials and make purchases. Now, for consumers, their digital devices have trackers. One way or another, the personal information is recorded somewhere, and companies might get hijacked and the credit card information of many might be compromised. As consumers too, people have to be acutely aware that there are people who might try to steal your data. And I’m not saying that e-commerce companies need bank grade protection, but of course, people need to be aware,” answered Adlin. 

How do you value an e-commerce company? What are companies looking for when investing in e-commerce companies? 

Pam Lee answers, “There are quite a few indicators that make an e-commerce company investable. First of all, take a look at the team handling this business. The people, the founding members, the representatives. We look at whether the business is scalable and the valuation is largely dependent on that. You also need to look at the traction that this is getting, but most important is profitability. And they need to show the path to profitability, the projections that can help in assessing the value. We sometimes look at the competition and the other companies out there. GMV is looked at, but there are other matrices to be looked at too, like net revenue, or profit after taxes, etc.”

Adlin adds, “For e-commerce valuations, it’s not a new business anymore. Aside from Amazon that has built a trillion dollar business, many are actually struggling. You build a platform, and you have your people cost, the logistics cost, and then there are discounts being given everywhere. And as Firoze said, the bubble will burst. You may not even know if you’ll reach profitability at the end of a journey and it’s important to know that there is no harm in being focused on a unique set of offerings. I think in the next few years we will find that many e-commerce businesses are offering niche or unique things, focusing on one thing rather than everything. There’s a company in America that matches musicians with instruments and that is all that they do, and that’s okay, that’s good. I think in the future there is real value to be attracted in more focused businesses.”

How do you get effective ROI in customer acquisition?

Ben-Jie responds, “I think Firoze mentioned before that it’s getting more and more expensive to acquire customers, and no lie there, it is getting very expensive. We are fortunate to have established a good footing in the travel industry for over 19 years and not just in Malaysia, but in most of ASEAN, and that has given us the confidence to take this leap of faith and expand from just being about travel to being in the lifestyle industry. Customer acquisition, for us we need to make segments of customers and target them very locally in their respective markets. If you’re expanding to Thailand or Bangkok, then we go out there and they are familiar with AirAsia already, and we are already known in the market. New brands coming in have to spend a lot on building their brand, but for us we have an established brand, and people know us. Half our work is done there, so we just have to let people know that we are now offering these new services too. During this pandemic, we have limited funding and we are hoping that we can build good coordination between travel and lifestyle with our whole range of services.”

Leave A Comment