Really now, advice on “improving the retail customer experience” gets thrown about a lot these days, mainly because modern consumers can literally shop from anywhere. In an age when players like Lazada and Shopee allow people to make purchases with a tap of a key on their portable devices, perhaps more than anything else, brick-and-mortar retailers need to up their game and offer experiences that people can’t get online or on their phones.
Sure, the answer will vary from one retailer to the next. But the “right” customer experience strategy will depend on the products, stores and shoppers specific to each case. As an entrepreneur, it’s somewhat essential to know all three like the back of your hand so you can come up with the best retail experiences possible.
For David Tseng, the man behind grocery upstart Qra – he was also co-founder of Ben’s Independent Grocer (B.I.G.) more than a decade ago – playing it right by making sure to do business both “the good, old-fashioned way” and being digitally agile is something he keeps close to his heart.
Tseng reveals that Qra (pronounced ‘Q-Ra’) is a play on the word ‘curate’. He adds that the idea for Qra came out in the early years of being in this industry with the earlier brand. “As I began to understand more about where the market was going and how it’s changing, I thought it was time for me to do this for myself,” Tseng explains over coffee outside the recently opened second Qra outlet, situated on the busy office belt along Jalan Dungun in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur.
And just with everyone and everything else, the coming of the pandemic initially threw a bit of a spanner into the new brand’s initial plans. “We were meant to launch Qra in mid 2020, but with what had already happened, we obviously had to delay our plans to this year. Fortunately, this also gave us a bit more time to fine-tune a lot more things – from construction plans to staffing needs – and this setback actually taught the Qra team to be more agile.”
This delay meant that the first Qra store opened in the lush setting of Selangor Properties’ recently redeveloped The Stories of Taman Tunku only in February this year. And the bigger, follow-up branch located at The Five @ KPD in Damansara Heights opened its doors just in June.
“I suppose taking our time was important because we’re not looking for short-term gains with the brand. So, we made sure our foundations are well thought out, and our objectives very clear. Also, we mustn’t deviate from the chosen path, pandemic or not, and we must be very clear on what we need to do.
“But, there’s hardly an ideal time to open a business, is there? You have to possess a very clear direction of what you’re going to do with the business and build it from there – and that’s the main part of it,” he responds, when asked about the timing behind the brand’s launch.
“Once we move ahead, with the right concept, the stores in the right locations, and working with the right partners, nothing else should matters, really! What we have now with the pandemic is more of a situation, and the fact that we have been operating rather well in the last four months shows that, more than anything else, this has been a great learning experience for us.”
After all, despite the new challenges brought up by the pandemic, Tseng believes it’s very much still an exciting time to be in retail. An astute observer of the things that are happening around him, it’s hard for Tseng not to notice that this is the time when consumer behaviour is clearly evolving and changing. “Led by the young, people these days are always on the lookout for products with health and wellness benefits built into them. And as I looked around me at the time, I couldn’t see any other retail brand seriously championing and promoting this sort of products.”
Even with the rapid growth of online retail, Tseng remains firmly convinced that the concept of retail in grocery stores is an everlasting idea. “It’s true – you definitely do not need to reinvent something that’s already working so well, right? But obviously, businesses like ours need to constantly look at new technologies and you need to understand what’s happening around you.”
Tseng is also keen to explain that the tried-and-tested model for the sort of retail he’s signed up for is about understanding customers and delivering that service with a more personalised touch, and, at the end of the day, delivering fresh and beneficial products.
“Yes, I am still a strong believer in the brick-and-mortar business,” says Tseng proudly. This way, anyone can come into a Qra store, experience the freshness in what they see, smell, touch and taste, and purchase it then and there. “But sometimes, when you’re a bit more indisposed, you can just as easily purchase things online, and the experience will then be delivered to you, instead…”
“In this day and age,” he adds, “sure, we need e-commerce and door-to-door deliveries. But instead of replacing brick-and-mortar, these new conveniences need to blend with the tried and tested in what we call an omni channel setup. But neither one should be dominant, I feel. Instead, they should be in sync and not be over-represented anywhere at all. And that’s what we want to be – a platform that exists successfully in both areas in a seamless experience, both for our customers and our team members.”
Certainly, there are legitimate benefits to both online and the brick-and-mortar way of doing things, but Tseng believes a company like his shouldn’t need to choose one over the other. In fact, he is confident that Qra should be using both channels to complement each other.
“That’s why the team at Qra will also develop applications that will go hand-in-hand with our in-store shopping convenience that we will present to our audiences real soon. The whole objective for this is to connect our customers effectively, both online and in the real world. Unfortunately, I can’t give too much away just yet, but I promise you that what we’re working on right now will make things just a whole lot more seamless for everyone!”
“So, no, we’re not keen on reinventing the shopping experience wholeheartedly, but rather, we’d like to take things step-by-step,” he continues. “That’s why we’re first focused on putting our faith in the convenient and ergonomic self-checkout concept that customers now experience at our stores, and, soon, there’s also an e-commerce platform on the cards. We’d also like to do more things digitally and keep things in the cloud. Doing work this way will definitely give our team members more mobility when they’re on the job.”
The products curated on the shelves of Qra certainly have a premium air about them and there is an extensive list of not only imported goods but also items sourced from local farmers and producers. You’ll find vegetables from Cultiveat, organically grown kale from Plucked, sourdough bread from Provisions, soy sauce from Mu Artisan Soy Sauce, and more.
Another category of food that Qra is championing are plant-based options. “While the local tempeh is a common variety and pretty much expected, you’ll also see the supermarket stocking plant-based meat brands like OmniMeat and Beyond Meat. You’ll also find local brand Rawsome, which offers ready-to-eat plant-based meals, here as well. At the end of the day, we are a community neighbourhood store and the idea is to be able to focus on healthier retail choices – that has always been our objective,” Tseng says.
And being located right smack in the middle of Damansara Height’s business district along the Jalan Dungun thoroughfare, the newer Qra store is a very busy place at lunchtime. So, the store takes advantage of the fact that its bigger built-up allows for a rather impressive bakery inside, unlike the more confined Bukit Tunku outlet.
“Qra here also has coffee and pastries for shoppers to enjoy after doing groceries. In fact, our trolleys at the supermarket also come with a nifty little coffee holder — all the better for those who need a caffeine kick while shopping! The cafe section also offers drinks from Niko Neko Matcha, alongside an impressive selection of freshly made pastries, sandwiches, salads and other food choices for the lunchtime crowd to enjoy,” reveals Tseng with a smile.
“At the same time, we also want to listen to what our customers want and we also try to make the shopping experience a lot more local as well. We’d like to also introduce to our clientele exciting alternatives to more common products. And as we do that, we also want customers to get to know our team and vice-versa. This is how we adapt to our surrounding communities with a Qra twist.”
Tseng is proud of the fact that Qra has become a platform that supports many Malaysian homegrown products as well, and he points out that this has always been an important part of his brand’s business model. “We’re not driven by pricing or promotions, and we also like to see ourselves as the champion for small and young local brands, who’d otherwise find it hard to find an opening for their products.”
According to him, while Qra carries things that are health and brand-driven, the supermarket is also very keen to strike a fine balance. “So, we also work with fresh, somewhat artisanal local brands – like sourcing for fresh chillies from a company called Abundant Ventures, a social enterprise focused on ensuring food security, good health and environmental awareness. We also source for products from LS Dairies, a local buffalo dairy farm. Customers will find on our shelves a rather extensive array of cheeses – from feta to burrata – made specifically from buffalo milk.”
Tseng goes on to say that the run-of-the mill Malaysian customer has also grown to be one who is more discerning and moving away from buying things just because of attractive pricing and gifts, for instance.
“It’s true, and we’re not just talking about people who walk through the doors of more premium establishments. Shoppers of all backgrounds are a lot more purposeful and definitely know what they’re looking for because they have access to more information. This access to information also opens them up to new things and ideas, and they are keen to explore all this,” he says.
At the same time, Tseng knows that modern-day shoppers are also more careful when sourcing for products – like where it’s from, what the ingredients are, and all the other socio-economic factors associated with a particular brand. “Yes, customers these days are definitely a whole lot more well-informed. Thus, Qra’s tagline, ‘Eat Well, Live Well’, perfectly sums up what we stand for as a modern grocery brand. We want to bring healthier ingredients, outstanding choices and a world of conveniences to all Malaysians.
“Sure, the grocery business is a very traditional one, any way you look at it. What we want to do is to cut out a lot of the ‘legacy’ part of this business by doings things like working in the cloud and ensuring that our teams can work from anywhere, and presenting technological solutions for our consumers for their absolute convenience. By this and more, we hope Qra will be more than prepared for just about any sort of eventuality in the future.”