Sating customer appetites through the pandemic and beyond

Daphne Hedley, Co-Founder/CEO, Mekhala. Photo courtesy of Mekhala

In the ongoing pandemic and the various restrictions on travel and social activities, the local retail and fashion industries are certainly facing an unprecedented challenge.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. As the fashion and retail sectors have remained agile and resilient, adapting to new consumer demands, expanding their range of offerings, supporting home-grown businesses and collaborating to unlock new revenue streams, the opening up of borders internationally means that Singapore’s retail scene can now be reimagined on the world stage.

One company looking forward to the increased travel possibilities is Mekhala, a Singaporean/Thai whole foods brand that produces organic, all-natural, gluten and nut-free, vegan-friendly food. SMEhorizon speaks with Daphne Hedley their Co-Founder and CEO, on the company’s journey, how they have navigated and leveraged the challenges of the pandemic, and how Thailand’s opening of its borders for quarantine-free travel to vaccinated Singaporean tourists will affect them.

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Serene Tan, Director, Retail & Dining, Experience Development Group, Singapore Tourism Board, also comments on how companies like Mekhala contribute to Singapore’s vibrant retail landscape, and how smaller companies can leverage opportunities in the post pandemic market.

Birth of a Goddess

Mekhala means “goddess” in Thai, and through its quality products with a strong yet contemporary Asian influence, the company aims to turn customers into kitchen gods and goddesses. “After my friend Jang Bauerle failed to find quality natural products for the clients at her retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand, she and I teamed up to found Mekhala in 2012,” recounts Hedley.

Seeing a gap in South East Asian and East Asian cooking condiments, she and her sister Diane Wong created a range of products inspired by the vegan meals at the retreat. “Sadly, Jang passed away later in 2014, but Diane and I, together with our amazing team, continue to grow Mekhala,” she says.

Both sisters have worked and studied in various countries abroad, and bring to their business a desire to make a difference. As Hedley describes it, they both wanted to have an impact on people’s lives and not just deal with money. To this end, Mekhala is an equal-opportunity company that is committed to empowering women and youths in our local community.

Yet even with their experience and passion, building up the company came with its own struggles. “People were unfamiliar with the concept of vegan and gluten-free foods and assumed they were tasteless. We knocked on retail doors, did farmer’s markets and tastings,” recalls Hedley.

“But we knew our idea would eventually take off, especially as more and more people turned to organic foods for health reasons. We had a small but loyal set of customers, mostly in Singapore and then in Hong Kong and Australia. We set our minds on the US market and when Whole Foods decided to put our products in all 450 stores around the country, we knew we had hit a major milestone.”

Moving forward through times of crisis

Like all businesses, Mekhala has had to adapt itself to life in a COVID-19 era, which has disrupted commerce across the board. Comments Serene Tan, Director, Retail & Dining, Experience Development Group, Singapore Tourism Board, the local retail and fashion industries “have definitely taken a hit from the lack of travellers, with visibly less traffic in key shopping precincts like Orchard Road and Marina Bay.”

“We have also seen lower footfall from locals due to work-from-home arrangements as well as ongoing Safe Management Measures (SMMs),” she adds.

Hedley explains that one challenge for Mekhala was securing raw materials, and having wholesale customers understand the need to order ahead due to delays. “Freight costs and shipping delays have definitely impacted our bottom line, but we are managing well,” she adds.

Along with these logistical challenges have come changes in consumer behaviour and spending patterns. However, here is where the picture takes a turn for the positive. Tan explains that the pandemic has spurred brands and consumers to embrace digital innovation and adopt contactless solutions and e-Commerce.

“Such digital platforms enable potential travellers to have a taste of the authentic and quality experiences that Singapore has to offer, even without being physically here,” she continues.

The increased appetite for quality products that are unique to their region can help explain how companies like Mekhala have actually experienced growth during a period that many associate with disruption. According to Hedley, their business has grown from 1200 stores to 1800 stores in this period, with Australia being one of the biggest growing markets outside of the US.

“Our healthy cooking sauces were made for this pandemic as most people were stuck at home and wanted to eat better,” says Hedley.

Safeguarding the health of both consumers and the planet

Another change observed, says Tan, is a shift in consumer behaviour and spending patterns from “possessions to experiences, with an increasing trend towards sustainability and responsibly-made products”.

One example of this relevant to Mekhala has been the plant-based meats movement. Notes Hedley, “It was already getting traction pre-COVID, but the meat-scare during COVID-19, concern about food supply chains and people’s growing consciousness around the planet and health has led to an increased popularity in plant-based meats.

“The thing is, most plant-based meats are full of unnecessary ingredients that mimic meat – fillers, colours, oil, salt, flavours. Seeing a gap for a clean version that customers can cook at home, Mekhala is launching a range of clean, plant-based, protein-rich stir-fry packs, in late 2021 or early 2022.”

Their plans chime with Tan’s advice for brands “to continue reinventing their offerings and explore differentiated collaborations.”

“Such unique locally-inspired merchandise and differentiated experiences are testament to Singapore’s vibrant retail ecosystem,” she adds.

Preparing for the return of travel

To encourage retail businesses that have similarly innovative ideas and concepts, Tan highlights the Singapore Tourism Board’s Kickstart Fund which supports the creation and test-bedding of lifestyle concepts and events with strong tourism potential and scalability that will enhance the vibrancy of Singapore as a tourist destination.

“We encourage retail businesses to step out of their comfort zone, and we hope our support can provide the additional boost needed to help them fulfil their ambitions and scale up on their efforts,” she adds.

Meanwhile, she also advises smaller brands to consider being part of bigger platforms or aggregators, tapping onto their cloud and distribution channels to raise awareness and expand their reach.

All these will prepare the retail sector for the projected upturn ahead. Says Tan, “As travel gradually resumes, we are confident that international visitors will continue to view Singapore as the preferred shopping destination in the region.

“Healthy domestic demand, coupled with the return of gradual mass international travel, will support the future of retail in Singapore.”

For Hedley, the resumption of travel also means reconnecting with Mekhala staff at their Chiang Mai factory. “We are looking forward to being able to travel freely soon between countries so that we can see our factory and staff in Chiang Mai who have been holding the fort,” she says, describing not being able to see them as “the hardest part” of the pandemic. “But they have proven to be independent and capable, and a team we can rely on,” she concludes.