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TECHNOLOGY | editor, Philippines

SM Supermalls president gives advice to physical store retailers

Steven Tan provided insights for retail establishments on how to safely operate during the pandemic.

Steven Tan, appointed as President of SM Supermalls this January, oversees the mall developments in both the Philippines and China.

He joined SM in 2004 handling mall operations for The Podium and in January 2006 led the launch and operations of the SM Supermalls’ crown jewel, SM Mall of Asia.

Steven began his career in Hospitality Management from 1990-1998 in Taipei, Taiwan with the Howard Plaza Hotel. He then moved to Shanghai, China to form part of the opening team of the Barcelo Grand Hotel, then returned to the Philippines in 2001 to work as Regional Director of Marketing and Communications for FilBarcelo.

As one of the speakers in the Retail Asia Virtual Conference 2020, Retail Asia sat down with Steven as he provides insights for retail establishments to survive, and even thrive during the current situation, and shares how the Philippines' retail and mall giant was able to adapt during the pandemic.

Can you describe your career in SM? How has the company developed over the years, especially with the rise of digital transformation in the industry?

I joined SM in 2004 as Mall Manager of The Podium. In January 2006, I led the team who launched SM Mall of Asia and other SM Premier Malls, including the redevelopment of SM Megamall, SM City North EDSA, and SM’s China mall properties. From April 2014 to December 2019, I handled operations for SM Supermalls in the Philippines and China as senior vice president, as well as the business unit as chief operating officer. In January 2020, I was appointed as president and am very humbled by the Sy family’s faith in me. When I first joined the company, people would simply visit the malls and purchase their desired items. But now, everything has shifted. Incorporating more technological innovations in our operations allows us to continuously serve the community. 

We have also launched additional online platforms to reach our shoppers. In our malls, we have installed thermal scanners, UV protective equipment, deep cleaning systems for fresh air circulation among others. SM tenants have also adapted touchless and cash-free payment options. Another landmark innovation for us was the touch-free, voice activated SAM the Robot in select malls which we use to remind shoppers of our safety protocols. 

How has the pandemic affected your operations and how were you able to adapt? 

Even before the pandemic reached a critical point, SM launched the #SafeMalling campaign, which included strict sanitation and safety protocols, friendly reminders, policies, and guidelines for our shoppers. 

Even during the government’s Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in the Philippines, essential shops and services such as supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, department stores—The SM Store, and other retail stores remained open and select restaurants were allowed for takeout and delivery. These are available online but in case they have to go to our malls, we make sure that our establishments are safe, clean, and regularly sanitised. 

SM Supermalls also made sure that SM personnel were retained with salaries and were provided with allowances. 

Right now, our base mall hours are from 10AM to 6PM but this may vary per area depending on the directive issued by the local government units. SM is also cooperating with their respective local government units. If they allow us, we open and serve the community.

Studies indicate an upward trajectory in the number of online shoppers, especially during the pandemic. How can physical store retailers adapt in this current trend? 

We have rolled out different online platforms where our customers can conveniently shop. The SM Store, SM Market, and Watsons have all launched their respective websites where people can buy anything they need. Basically, all commodities available at our physical stores are also available at those websites.

Aside from that, there is also the SM Personal Shopper Program of the malls—just call and someone will shop for you and deliver it to your home. We also have the Takeout and Delivery Viber community for food and other needs. For this one, SM has teamed up with different delivery companies such as Grab, Lalamove, and other pabili services. If you want to pick up your items in the mall, we have partnered with Waze for curbside pick-up points at the mall, where you don't even have to come down from your car. All these are just a few taps away.

What are your recommendations for retail establishments to survive, and even thrive amid modest outlooks for the remainder of the year? 

The key is to adapt. The needs of the people remain the same but delivered with modern and innovative solutions.

Digitisation of our essential services is also a must. We must embrace technology and use it to our advantage.

And of course, we must prioritise the safety of our customers. It is important for us to continue our operations, but COVID-19 prevention is still a shared effort we strive to do for the community. This is no longer just about maintaining or increasing our sales per se. In this time, adaptability is key so we can continue to provide essential goods and services, help secure employees’ jobs and livelihood, support small businesses and aid the communities in need. 

Can you give a summary of your presentation for the Retail Asia Virtual Conference 2020?

For my presentation, I talked about SM’s #SafeMalling campaign and how the malls’ precautionary measures enable us to safely operate amid the pandemic. I also spoke about our malls in China and how they recovered and rebuilt better when the malls reopened. There’s a lot to learn from them.  Part of my presentation also included our livelihood efforts such as helping micro, small and medium enterprises throughout the year, as these are the lifeblood of our malls.

I also touched on the value of helping communities in need during the pandemic. Lastly, I will touch on how we are adapting to omnichannel fulfillment—remaining the country’s favorite brick and mortar destination and now, the Philippines’ preferred online shopping center. 

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