SHOPPING for food, clothes and other property was designed to be experienced in person.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which robbed consumers of the delight in trying on a piece of clothing, personally inspecting a property and devouring food in the company of friends.
The pandemic, which has resulted in varying levels of lockdown, has led the country’s economy to a long and uncertain pause.
Cebu, the second biggest economy after Metro Manila, has suffered big time in the midst of this global health and economic crisis after almost four months of being under the strictest levels of lockdown.
The pandemic, which knocked companies off balance, has changed consumer behavior and disrupted supply chains, resulting in job losses and store closures.
But there’s one platform that has helped embattled businesses stay afloat while waiting for economic activity and consumer appetites to pick up—DIGITAL.
Steven Yu, president of the Mandaue Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said digital is the new normal. He said most businesses beefed up their online assets when they noticed that the lockdown wasn’t going to be lifted that soon.
“Ninety percent of the business/industry sectors in Mandaue City have established or strengthened their online presence. A few had considerable success while most had trickles. They also tapped the Internet to meet online, and do away with physical meetings,” said Yu.
Cebu Province was placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in late March. Mandaue, Lapu-Lapu and Cebu Cities were downgraded to a more relaxed community quarantine status in June. But Cebu City reverted to very strict quarantine status from June 16 due to its high number of Covid-19 cases, keeping its non-essential businesses shuttered.
Yu said businesses that were completely reliant on traditional methods are now fighting for survival, but those that quickly shifted online had the chance to keep their customers and still generate sales.
The pandemic has practically erased the need for customers to physically visit stores. Glued to their smartphones in the comfort of their homes, consumers learned to browse online to score good deals.
Mandaue City is Cebu’s industrial epicenter. A big part of its industrial sector includes manufacturers of essential goods and services, which are in demand during the community quarantine.
Industrial firms, Yu said, have been operating at an average of 70 percent capacity in recent months, which is only a bit lower than pre-Covid-19 levels.
Wilfredo Sa-a, managing director of the Cebu IT BPM.Organization, considers e-commerce sites and delivery platforms the real winners during this pandemic. Both toppled one of Cebu’s star industries, which is tourism, whose businesses are currently on pause.
“One of the best things that Covid-19 brought is the faster adoption of technology like webinars/online meetings, online shopping, online food delivery, working from home, online banking, telemedicine. Even our education system is adopting online classes,” Sa-a said.
Since the lockdown, online food delivery marketplace Foodpanda and app-based food delivery service GrabFood have been constant sights on the road. Restaurateur Bunny Pages said most restaurants have shifted to take-out and online deliveries in the absence of dine-in service.
He also noted a rise in competition as many households turned their kitchens into manufacturing centers for a food delivery business.
Recognizing that shopping activities will never be the same again until there is a Covid-19 vaccine, retail players have adopted new strategies to adjust to the “new normal” lifestyle. They, too, have embraced online selling and delivery.
SM’s senior public relations manager RJ Leduna said SM Malls in Cebu have partnered with delivery platforms to bring their products to consumers.
“We partnered with Grab Express and iKumpra for some of our tenants, while for some, we have the Call to Deliver service where we use our own resources,” he said.
Rival mall Ayala Center Cebu and AyalaMalls Central Bloc both rolled out AyalaMalls DriveBuy, a hassle-free curbside pick-up facility where consumers pick up their items at the designated pickup stations after buying them online.
“One of the notable things that Covid-19 brought about is an accelerated shift to digitalization as e-commerce flourished during the lockdown,” said Ayala Center Cebu mall general manager Jia Sadol.
Qualfon Cebu has benefited from this new way of shopping. It supports the customer care division of a grocery delivery service that is seeing a growing number of online shoppers in need of essential supplies.
This opportunity, the company said, could grow to provide an additional 2,000 jobs in Cebu, including advancement opportunities for supervisors, quality assurance specialists and trainers.
Other industries in Cebu have also ramped up their digital investments.
“This pandemic has been the push to a shove to the much-needed technology upgrade. Meetings done online, cashless transactions, online document exchange and coordination, mobile offices and technology-driven monitoring are just some of the features that enhanced working remotely at home,” said Dream Architects founder Daryl Garcia.
She said no one was prepared for the pandemic.
“But we have to keep moving forward and jump right in to this new normal,” she said.
Garcia said: “The pandemic has greatly affected the construction industry. The varying levels of community quarantines led to projects being put on hold, shortage of manpower for ongoing projects since travel is restricted and the uncertainty on what to do next as the situation is still volatile and unpredictable.”
“Staying afloat means being able to adapt to all these and upgrade the level of service,” she said.
Amid a temporary halt in construction activities, real estate developers have turned to digital tools to continue selling residential property.
To accommodate buyers during the lockdown, Cebu Landmasters Inc. improved its digital capabilities to make the buying process still possible and seamless even if buyers couldn’t meet them in person.
AboitizLand, on the other hand, has offered 360-degree virtual tours on its website to view amenities and features of its projects. Buyers have the option to settle payments through bank transfers, mobile banking apps, or through the firm’s own payment portal.
Anthony Gerard Leuterio, founder and chief executive officer of Filipino Homes, said real estate agents in Cebu aren’t new to selling properties online as the company has long invested in technology so it could help real estate agents market properties across the Philippines in the comfort of their homes.
But what the pandemic and the lockdowns pushed the company to immediately do was move its trainings online, thus, the creation of FilipinoHomes Institute of Real Estate.
“We anticipated that all comprehensive professional education will be stopped and will go online. So, our company right away, in April 2020, invested to make an online school and hired the best trainers in the country to be our resource speakers,” Leuterio said.
As the pandemic continues to pummel business, one thing remains solid—Filipinos’ entrepreneurial spirit.
According to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)-Business Name Registration (BNR) portal, Central Visayas logged 2,487 new registrations in March, which is 6.41 percent of the 38,823 total new registrations in the country for the month, as lockdowns started to be imposed. New registrations in Central Visayas in April plunged to 342, then quickly spiked to 1,760 in May and shot up to 9,722 in June.
According to the DTI, except for the month of March, the GCash mobile wallet that one can install in a smartphone, was the top payment channel used by entrepreneurs across the country to pay for their BNRs. Some 3,561 registrations were paid through GCash in April, 24,672 in May and 70,325 in June at the height of the varying levels of lockdowns in selected cities in the country. Others paid through DTI Teller, Paymaya and credit/debit cards.
The brave thrive
Tiffany Hazel Chua, owner of Tzel’s Cakes and Pastries, had her business registered in July this year amid economic uncertainties.
“I already had plans to put up a business even before this pandemic started. I have been selling homemade cakes for some time now, and for some reason like the pandemic, people chose to order online, giving online businesses, including mine, a chance to grow,” she said.
Amid the impending lockdown in March, milk tea and merchandise business D’Bear Tea & Tee pursued its plan to open the business.
A sister company of Coffee Prince, the milk tea brand took the risk of opening its store on March 17, just days before the March 26 lockdown. But from a brick and mortar operation, Adrian Diongzon, the brand’s public relations and marketing manager, said, they quickly shifted online and partnered with GrabFood and Food Panda for online deliveries.
“We boosted our marketing online because we knew people would be isolated in their homes. And we’ve got a really overwhelming response,” said Diongzon.
Since its opening, D’Bear Tea & Tee has been averaging 20,000 milk tea orders per month. From one branch in Capitol site, the company expanded its operations to Cebu I.T Park, Pardo, and Mandaue and Talisay Cities in just four months. It will open its sixth branch in Lapu-Lapu City this week.
Diongzon said the lockdown helped the brand to capture its own market. “Timing is important in opening a business; the lockdown for us was the right timing,” he said, adding that they were blessed that Cebuanos are milk tea lovers.
Digital payments have also soared, as the lockdown limited consumers’ access to cash and the pandemic raised fears about accepting cash from another person.
The pivot from cash to digital led Globe’s GCash to experience unprecedented growth in May. GCash said bank cash-in, which includes Instapay, and online payments to Google, Apple, Lazada and various other merchants surged 700 percent during the period over last year.
Amid the long wait for the economy’s return to its pre-Covid-19 shape, embracing the digital transformation may be the only way for business owners and consumers to survive the new normal.