Thailand: Taking retail to the next level
During the pandemic the past couple of years, retailers, brands and manufacturers have adapted to changing consumer behaviour.
While many hope 2022 will mark a return to normal for the retail segment, the emergence of Omicron has rocked market sentiment.
Over the last two years Thailand’s retail market has adopted new trends such using more robots at restaurants and shopping complexes, offering health products, increasing partnerships, promoting around-the-clock services, and efforts to integrate the metaverse and cryptocurrency in their offerings.
Such trends are expected to continue in the coming years.
Robots to the rescue
Robots are playing a greater role in the Thai market as manufacturers and business operators address higher wages.
Thailand’s automation and intelligent robotics industry gained a foothold in recent years, driven by increasing demand from both domestic and overseas industries as well as with its well-established ecosystem.
The country’s globally competitive supply chains, most notably in the automotive, food and food processing, and electronics industries, have increased demand for industrial automation and robotics as businesses embrace their transformative effects on productivity.
Thailand’s service robot industry has also gained as innovations address the needs of caring for the elderly and providing healthcare services during the pandemic.
According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Thailand had the highest number of industrial robots in Asean in 2019, with roughly 3,000 units in operation, accounting for almost 1% of the 373,000 industrial robots deployed globally.
The IFR predicts the use of automated guide vehicles to serve logistical roles in factories, warehouses and for service providers such as hospitals will grow by 60% annually to well over 700,000 units by 2022.
Furthermore, local businesses are increasingly using automation and robotics for a wide range of processes, from welding and assembling, to dispensing and cleaning in industries as diverse as automotive, food and food processing, electronics, and plastics and rubber.
Covid-19 outbreaks created labour shortages for several restaurants, an industry that already has a high turnover rate for service staff. Robots were one solution to serve customers during the pandemic.
Robots are used at several restaurant chains including MK, U&I shabu, Sizzler steakhouse, Suki Tee Noi, Tum Factory and Food Library.
Some supermarket chains use robots to communicate with customers about promotions and help them find products, while malls use robots for events and activities to lure families.
MK uses 300 robots at its sukiyaki restaurants and plans to add 200 more gradually this year.
Sukanya Vanichjakvong, chief executive of Raas Pal Co, a distributor of robots, said the company expects to sell more than 1,000 robots this year, up from 900 last year.
The popularity of plant-based products in Thailand is expected to increase this year because of growing health concerns among Thais and higher prices of meat.
The entry of giant companies into Thailand’s 28-billion-baht plant-based market such as PTT Plc, Thai Union Plc, Nestle and Charoen Pokphand indicate these products have potential.
Most plant-based products available in the market come in two forms: raw materials and ready-to-eat meals.
Wiphu Loetsuraphibun, chief executive of Meat Avatar Co, said plant-based products were introduced to Thailand in 2018 by burger companies.
Now more than 10 Thai and international restaurant chains entered this market, offering both raw materials and plant-based meat items.
“Supermarket chains now reserve freezers or specific zones for plant-based products,” said Mr Wiphu.
“Initially limited options for ready-to-eat meals are available, but we expect to see more food categories from plant-based raw materials this year.”
He said Meat Avatar is talking with more restaurant chains about serving its plant-based food this year.
The company plans to launch co-branded plant-based menus in several new categories including salads, ice cream and snacks in the first quarter this year, said Mr Wiphu.
The pandemic stopped the traditional way of doing retail business because consumers rapidly changed their behaviour.
Apart from agility and speed in adapting to the contagion, continuous collaboration is important for a sustainable retail business, said Usara Yongpiyakul, chief executive of the retail business group for Siam Piwat Co.
Ms Sukanya says Raas Pal Co expects to sell more than 1,000 robots this year, up from 900 last year.
Siam Piwat, the operator of Siam Center, Siam Discovery, Siam Paragon and Iconsiam malls, adopted a collaboration strategy a long time ago, she said.
Digital technology is critical for business today, offering opportunities as systems become more interconnected, said Ms Usara.
Retail business no longer has to confine itself to the conventional limits of the industry and can expand towards new business models through partnerships, she said.
“Siam Piwat is accelerating collaboration with our partners around the world to create a new customer experience for the retail industry,” said Ms Usara.
“We aim to bring much-loved Thai products to online and offline foreign platforms in high-growth markets. Success is never a solo act in business. Our collaboration aims to create sustainable success and provide mutual benefits for all involved.”
Metaverse and cryptocurrency
Metaverse and cryptocurrency remain buzzwords in the retail landscape. After working to build a seamless shopping experience between online and offline for years, giant retailers are moving to create new experiences for customers by jumping into the crypto world.
The Mall Group joined hands with Bitkub to serve as a hub for exchanging digital assets, while Siam Piwat teamed up with Zipmex to provide customer payments via Zipmex tokens on the ZipWorld platform.
Seacon Square Bangkae paired with Bitazza to allow customers to use Bitcoin.
Prof Witawat Rungruangphon, a lecturer in marketing at Thammasat Business School, said metaverse will be the hottest retail trend in 2022 because it is a tool retailers can use to enhance the shopping experience, allowing customers to do things they typically could not do in physical stores.
The metaverse generally refers to a digital reality that combines aspects of social media, online gaming, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality and cryptocurrencies to allow users to interact virtually.
AR overlays visual elements, sound and other sensory input onto real-world settings to enhance the user experience.
“The metaverse will help retailers and shopping centres to build hybrid shopping between offline and virtual worlds,” he said.
“This tool can build an image for brands, leading to it becoming a tool to draw customer traffic to try services.”
Prof Witawat said he also expects retailers to keep their focus on the omni-channel strategy.
Thais have long been familiar with 24-hour services. Some malls dedicate zones to around-the-clock services to tap into the lifestyle of the new generation.
Samyan Mitrtown provided 24-hour services before the Covid-19 outbreak, and MBK recently renovated its complex to add more outdoor space. MBK plans to provide 24-hour service at some shops starting in the first quarter.
The Mall Group is conducting a feasibility study on developing anchors that offer 24-hour services at its new retail development, EmSphere, near Benchasiri Park.
“24-hour service will be a major retail trend this year,” said Thiranant Kornsritipa, executive vice-president of retail business development at Frasers Property Commercial (Thailand) Co.
“We are jumping on the bandwagon, providing 24/7 space that has eateries, a convenience store and selective lifestyle shopping at a new retail development called Silom Edge on Silom Road. It is scheduled to open in September.”
A robot serves dishes to customers at the Katsuya restaurant in the CentralWorld shopping complex. The robots have been put to work to reduce the chances of Covid-19 transmission. Arnun Chonmahatrakool