The face of omnichannel in APAC: Spotlight on Decathlon’s Clarence Chew

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Established retail sports giant Decathlon has given its Singaporean team free reign to implement an omnichannel strategy, and Clarence Chew is the man behind it. 

What is a true omnichannel customer experience?

Many brands are implementing multichannel strategies, but connecting the consumer across touchpoints for a full understanding of their purchasing behavior, remains the sticking point.

“At a mass level I don’t think any brand has really achieved this,” says Clarence Chew, head of marketing and communications, Decathlon S.A.

He points to Apple as an industry leader, where the retail experience is unlike anything the customer is used to. Customer service reps are the salesperson, the technician and the cashier, all in one. And the consumer’s post purchase journey is tracked from the moment they sign over their email.

Apple’s advantage is in the limited number of products it has for sale. For a retail giant like Decathlon, which can have up to 100,000 products in a single store, implementing an omnichannel strategy takes on a whole new dimension.

“It’s a big challenge. Everything we do is unchartered waters, and while we can learn best practices from different industries and different people who are good at certain specific things, I don’t think anyone has achieved the whole model that is truly representative of this vision,” says Chew.

Chew has been tasked with this vision for Decathlon’s Singapore and Southeast Asia operations. When he started the role in 2013 – to set up an omnichannel strategy for Singapore – he was one of just three on the team.

There was Chew (pictured below), a financial controller and the chief executive officer (CEO). It involved building the business from the ground up, setting up everything from the logistics to the customer service.

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This month, Decathlon opened its flagship bricks and mortar store in Singapore – more than two years after consumers in the region began purchasing products from its ecommerce site.

Chew won’t disclose ROI figures, but says the opening weekend results were strong enough to make the global head office in France sit up and take notice.

These numbers now give Chew and his team in Singapore measurable results to show how the digital strategy is paying off. The hope is that they can then be used as a springboard for Decathlon to justify a new global omnichannel direction ahead.

Implementation

Decathlon Singapore’s decision to start with an online strategy first, has been very deliberate.

Singapore prides itself as a hub of innovation. At 85 percent digital penetration, Singaporeans are very used to digital technology, making it an ideal market to trial an online-only strategy.

In addition, an online strategy has provided a lot of consumer insights – from their behavior on the website, to being able to know who they are, what they like and where they live.

“All of this gives you a very good insight into how the market will respond to an actual retail store,” adds Chew.

Conceptualization: creating a brand

The flagship store is not technically Decathlon’s first store in Singapore. In the early days, the team set up a retail ‘showroom’ that allowed customers to look and try products. The catch – nothing could be purchased at a traditional cashier.

Instead, customers used onsite computers to either click-and-collect the following day, or have the goods home delivered. This got customers used to buying online, and ensured every purchase was accompanied by an electronic profile.

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For the new flagship store, which opened this month in Singapore, the purchase point remains tightly linked to the ecommerce experience.

Radio-frequency identification technology (RFID) is used to automatically identify and track products, without having to scan them at a cash register. From there, goods go directly into the customer’s virtual cart.

Here, Chew outlines Decathlon’s omnichannel consumer purchase journey in a nutshell.

1. The traditional sales funnel: It all starts with awareness, interest, intent and purchase.

2. Platforms: Decathlon ensures it is in every place its consumers are likely to interact with it. That could be Facebook, YouTube, or Google, but wherever they are, Decathlon is careful to craft a consistent experience for the customer across all those levels.

Then it is a delicate art of relationship building. That means not bombarding new potential customers with information on products or sales. Instead, there is a focus on bringing customers into the online or offline stores.

3. Messaging: “We want to be where people can see us, rather than going out and telling people about us,” says Chew.

For example, to promote its football gear, Decathlon might support a local football club. Instead of handing over sponsorship money, it sponsors in kind. In return, it asks for a partnership allowing it to reach the crowd that watches these athletes. That might be hosting a football clinic with the players in the store and inviting customers to come along to learn how to play like a pro.

“It’s very subliminal to ensure it comes across as educational, rather than as direct advertising,” says Chew.

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4. Purchase: “We want to identify what happens after a purchase. So the event doesn’t end at the sign up,” says Chew.

That means tracking across touchpoints. Currently customers in Singapore are tracked via the ecommerce platform – even if purchases are made in the offline store, they are signed up for an online loyalty program.

Challenges

“The biggest challenge for any marketer is buy in from senior management – that’s principally the hardest thing. What we are doing here is very innovative, it hasn’t really been done before so you have no precedence and no examples to show how something can work,” says Chew.

He admits he’s had an easy run with the business’s digital transformation. The CEO is receptive to innovation for the new digital world.

The new store also means Chew’s team can track measurable results.

“If we have measurable results in terms of revenue and profit, then we will be able to get more buy in more easily, and so it becomes more sustainable,” he says.

Innovation

Down the track, Decathlon hopes to have an app, an ewallet and a fitbit.

The app is being developed to give consumers a more experiential journey. For example, it will be able to recommend places for the user to go hiking, and then the products to go with that. A two-day hike requires different equipment from a 10-day hike, and recommendations can be tailored accordingly.

A fitness tracker would help the store know if the customer is a serious runner, helping service reps better target products to them.

Chew is hesitant to use the word ‘success’ just yet, but says to have achieved what Decathlon Singapore has so far comes down to three things:

1. People:  People are extremely important, says Chew. Without the right people nothing can be achieved.

2. Supportive management: This is essential for implementing policy and procedures.

3. The need to innovate: This comes down to not only the products, but the methods of communication, the way the store is structured, the business plan, and structuring that around the local market. “No body can take a single blueprint all over the world and expect to succeed,” says Chew.

He says the friendliness of the Singaporean market has also had a big impact.

“It’s easy to do business here and the people are more receptive to innovative models,” he says.

Conclusion

Decathlon was founded in France in 1976. Today it has more than 1,000 stores in 26 countries including China and India, employing 70,000 people. As a traditional retailer with an established history, it has all the kinds of legacy issues that make implementing an omnichannel strategy all the more complicated.

However, it’s decision to effectively start from scratch with the implementation of a digital first omnichannel strategy in Singapore and Southeast Asia gives it a strong platform to start small and remain agile as it continues to grow.

“While our Singaporean team is more established today, with more people, we are still made up of small teams. This allows us to make decisions very quickly,” says Chew.

He says the French headquarters have been watching developments in Asia keenly.

“Everything is really out of the norm, it’s everything they have never done before, and we are very fortunate to have had the ability to do this.”

What’s your business philosophy in three points?

Rounding up this week’s CMO profile, Chew shares three of his key business philosophies:

  • Listening to our customers and developing our business based on their feedback. The digital age dictates that we now live or die by the word of our customers, so putting them first is key.
  • Hiring a great team. Alone, we are all imperfect; but with a team whose talent and skills complement each other, we can be exceptional.
  • Your word is gold. I believe that to be trustworthy, efficient and effective, one must endeavour to keep one’s word and promises.

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