Implementing fintech solutions to enhance retail

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The Curtain Boutique was founded in 2012 as a two-man roaming team. Today, the pioneering local curtains, blinds and ziptrack retailer has become one of the top 100 fastest-growing companies in Singapore, with 70 employees, spanning across two showrooms and an operations HQ office.

According to Bruce Lee, Chief Operating Officer, The Curtain Boutique, the business initially operated in a very manual and traditional manner: using paper to prepare job orders, faxing suppliers, using Excel to track expenses, and making payments by cheque. Today, the company has embraced technology to operate in a more efficient and systematic manner.

SMEhorizon speaks to Lee about how The Curtain Boutique, in partnership with Airwallex, has optimised its financial processes, and the benefits it has brought to their operations and plans for growth. Low Cher Hao, Head of SME and Growth, Singapore, Airwallex, also explains how these optimisations can help Singapore’s retail sector more generally, and shares the best practices, guidelines and business areas for SME retail companies to implement effective fintech solutions.

Exploring new avenues in financial solutions

In today’s business climate, rising costs persist as a significant challenge across Singapore businesses, particularly the retail sector. “In Airwallex’s 2023 SME survey,” says Low “over two-thirds (66%) of local businesses cited rising costs, particularly from suppliers and manpower, as their primary concerns.

“We see this trend continuing even in more recent research insights, with increase in business cost listed as the top challenge in the Singapore Business Federation’s latest national business survey.”  

Other Airwallex research identifies high banking fees and delays in financial processes as pain points for the retail industry. These stand in the way of leveraging the increased opportunities offered by e-commerce and cross-border purchasing. “Findings from recent research indicate that cross-border e-commerce will be on the rise in 2024,” continues Low. “Despite ongoing economic uncertainty and slowing global growth, 54% of global consumers expect to increase their cross-border purchasing over the next six to twelve months.

“In APAC, this number rises significantly, with 69% of consumers across Singapore, China, and Hong Kong expecting to increase their international online shopping activities.”

Optimising financial processes is key in retail companies making full use of the potential flexibility and agility in the current environment. “With more suppliers, finance teams must oversee and monitor multiple partners throughout the supplier management process, from onboarding to order and payments management,” says Low.

“Diversifying inventory sources across the global marketplace also introduces challenges such as exposure to foreign exchange risks and hidden cross-border payment costs. Modern, tech-enabled solutions can help retail companies address these challenges and optimise financial processes.”

Opening the curtains on new solutions

The Curtain Boutique’s own interest in optimising their financial processes resulted from several factors. According to Lee, these included improving customer experience through simplifying payment processes to make them user friendly and accessible and increasing the productivity of their financial team who faced challenges with inefficiencies.

One such hurdle, says Lee, was the traditional method of issuing credit cards to higher management. “This process involved dealing with hard-copy invoices and waiting up to a month to record transactions upon receiving the credit card statements from banks. Additionally, manual reconciliation of payments collected or disbursed was cumbersome.”  Other considerations included making their company paperless and more sustainable, while ensuring that all financial operations are both secure and efficient.

Airwallex was recommended to the company by a partner during a seminar. “We were keen to explore their solutions for more affordable foreign exchange (FX) rates and a payment gateway solution that could integrate seamlessly with Xero, our existing accounting software.”

Initially The Curtain Boutique started by using employees’ cards and collecting payments from customers. “We observed an immediate improvement,” said Lee, “customers made payments more quickly than before, when we had to follow up for balance payments via bank transfer or PayNow.”

“Airwallex’s payment links have also helped us overcome the challenges of manual reconciliation and have improved traceability as we scale our business,” he adds.

Addressing the challenges of their transition to the new processes, Lee shares that “encouraging the team to embark on new software or platforms was particularly challenging.” This was especially true when the team was preoccupied with daily tasks, making it challenging to change the existing workflow to adopt new technology effectively. He cites his company mindset of embracing cutting edge solutions, together with the support provided by Airwallex as key to bringing the team forward and overcoming technical issues.

Best practices for SMEs looking to adopt fintech solutions

Given the tight resources that SMEs operate with, adopting fintech solutions should be considered strategically. Low advises SME retail companies that are looking to adopt fintech solutions to optimise their operations to consider the following:

  • Service offerings:Businesses that value access to capital in multiple markets, and a trusted global presence might be better off with traditional banks. However, for retailers that require efficiency and innovation, digital banks and specialised financial technology companies may be a better fit. Fintech companies, in particular, have specialised services that even digital banks can’t offer.
  • Fees: Even though digital banks have cost advantages compared to traditional banks, examine the fees for banking activities that you frequently do. Choose the financial partner that offers the best fees.
  • Security: A trustworthy fintech solution provider or digital bank should offer multi-layered security features. On top of two-factor authentication (2FA), look out for real-time transaction alerts so you can catch unauthorised use quickly, and data encryption.

Reflecting on how The Curtain Boutique has grown, Lee advises other businesses to:

  • Understand your business needs: Before diving into fintech solutions, it’s crucial to have a clear understanding of your specific business requirements and how these solutions can address them.
  • Ensure security and compliance: Prioritise the security of your financial transactions and ensure that any fintech solution you consider is compliant with relevant regulations and industry standards.
  • Invest in training and support: Adopting new technology requires a shift in how your team operates. Invest in the necessary training and support to help your team adapt effectively.
  • Embrace technology beyond your comfort zone: Innovation requires stepping out of your comfort zone. Encourage your organisation to be open to new technologies and the benefits they can bring, even if it means navigating initial uncertainties.