In 1846, Austria’s Vienna General Hospital had a maternity ward that was notorious for killing mothers and newborns. The deaths were caused by puerperal fever. You see, Vienna General was also a teaching hospital where doctors trained by cutting up cadavers. After handling corpses, doctors would head straight to the maternity ward to deliver babies.
One of the doctors, Ignaz Semmelweis, wondered if puerperal fever was transmitted from the corpses to mothers during delivery.
This was an era when doctors let blood stains on their gowns build up over time like a badge of honor. Like that old boyfriend of yours, hygiene wasn’t really a thing. When Semmelweis convinced some doctors to wash their hands, the death rate dropped enormously from thirty five to two percent.
The medical community vigorously rejected Semmelweis’ hand washing idea, despite the clear evidence that hand washing saves lives.
Semmelweis’ observations challenged two millennia of dogma that ruled medicine since the time of Hippocrates. The first is humorism, the belief that the body is composed of four fluids – black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood – and that good health meant the balance of the four. The second is miasma theory, the belief that diseases are caused by inhaling “bad air”.
The idea that diseases could be transferred from cadavers to humans contradicted these strongly held beliefs. One doctor reacted that the idea of something being transmitted from doctor to patient could not possibly be true because doctors are gentlemen and a “gentleman’s hands are clean.”
Semmelweis was confined to an asylum where was has placed in a straightjacket and beaten continuously. He died after two weeks. With no one to supervise Vienna General, the doctors stopped washing their hands and the death rate went back to previous levels. It wasn’t until the time of Louis Pasteur did we discover germs and their role in diseases.
As we’ll see later, it’s dogma that prevents retailers from embracing their digital future.
SM fascinates me. I think it holds the key to the digital economy in the Philippines. No other local company can bring our e-commerce future to fruition in the same way SM can.
Let me explain why.
Imagine you’re a 25-year old Filipino. You’ve been working for four years now since you graduated from college. You work in Net Plaza in the Fort. The business process outsourcing firm that employs you just handed your first promotion. That’s a big increase in pay, and in your credit limit on your BDO credit card. You seriously consider a car loan for that new Vios model. You eat out more. You buy more groceries. You upgrade your wardrobe. You watch movies on Imax more often. You’ll reluctantly make the weekend trip to City of Dreams because your girlfriend sees Leo’s face all over town. There’s that concert too at SM Arena.
As the years go by, your savings grow and you finally have enough to make a down payment on that condo. And when you do, you’ll need to buy furniture, of course. You marry said girl and next thing you know, the kids spending your cash at Toy Kingdom. When vacation time hits, you take a trip down to Cebu, and stay in Radisson. During Christmas, the visting pinsans from abroad want to buy some handicrafts at Kultura. You’re in your late thirties now, and you decide to start a business. You hear Chinabank is offering loans for working capital, and that Citymall is offering new store space for tenants.
In every single transaction above, SM made money. SM’s business spans many industries: retail, property (mall operations, residential, commercial and hospitality), banking, gaming, and even mining.
If you peek at the official government stats on household expenditure, you’ll see that SM makes money on every single line item of consumer spending with the exception of communications.
Wait, actually they do – indirectly – when you pay your Globe / Smart bill in an SM payments center.
That is absolutely phenomenal.
SM is the ultimate platform business in the Philippines. SM owns the Filipino consumer. Every single Filipino alive today and born from this day forward will contribute to SM’s bottom line at some point in their lives. Let me give you a few seconds to digest that.
How would SM start? The intuitive bet is that they’ll start at e-commerce. They’ve announced this. Online banking and online real estate listings seem more like channels than business models from SM’s point of view. E-commerce is where they can leverage an unfair advantage nobody else has.
To understand why, let’s first take a detour to Seattle, USA, then to China.
If you look at the history of e-commerce in every major market, there was always a unique set of circumstances that catalyzed the industry’s hyper growth in the early years.
In the United States, e-commerce was subsidized by cheap capital. The capital markets gave Amazon an outsized valuation that allowed it to aggressively grow its customer base and its physical distribution infrastructure without much regard for profitability. That’s something that can only happen in the US.
In China, the popular opinion is that e-commerce growth was driven by internet penetration, the growing middle class, and nascent demand from secondary cities. However, a prominent VC once told me that the oversupply of cheap, counterfeit goods available abundantly on Taobao was the underrated driver of e-commerce – a historical anomaly that is unique to China.
In the Philippines, it’ll be SM that drives e-commerce growth. Not Lazada or Zalora. Not Ayala Land or Robinsons. Not even Globe or Smart.
The popular view is that the two biggest barriers to broad e-commerce adoption are logistics and payments.
Well, SM already has both.
As the experience of Macy’s has shown, it turns out that a network of stores make great warehouses and fulfillment centers. Nobody talks about click and collect in-store because it’s boring, but in France, there are already 3000 e-commerce pick-up points. Two thirds of Europeans do it.
Nobody else has the network of fulfillment centers SM has – a network of fully-stocked, accessible warehouses for e-commerce. These warehouses are called SM Malls, and they are 50-strong all over the country. Add a cloud-based inventory optimization layer, and we can rock and roll.
No other retailer has a BDO, a leading issuer of credit cards, debit cards, and online banking accounts that can subsidize the initial purchases of first-time e-commerce buyers. As far as I know, it’s only BDO that has automated online installments. Not even BPI or Citibank has this.
Nobody else has the power to arm twist the country’s biggest tenants to participate by allocating inventory to an online B2B2C marketplace, lest they suffer unfavorable lease terms.
Lazada and Zalora don’t have the ability to drive down customer acquisition costs the way SM can, by simply adding a “thesmstore.com.ph” to every single mall signage, shopping bag, elevator door, parking entrance, and store receipt.
Robinson’s has a far smaller retail footprint. Ayala’s new business teams are focused on health care, education, and infrastructure. San Miguel is focused on the big PPPs. Smart / Voyager’s local e-commerce operation will never have the omnichannel scale SM has. LBC is still figuring out its IT infrastructure, after its cancelled IPO.
SM can do all this to catalyze e-commerce growth – that is, if SM wants to. And that’s gonna depend on how big SM thinks e-commerce can be.
So how big can e-commerce be for SM and what will it cost?
Let’s look at current benchmarks. The grapevine says Lazada Philippines is doing a run rate of Php 2 billion a year. That’s too small for Tessie, in my humble opinion. She sells more than Php 3 billion in movie tickets each year.
So let’s say Tessie will only start looking at this seriously when she believes SM can do Php 4 billion in annual e-commerce sales. 40% of SM’s P197 billion retail revenues is non-food, so P4 billion is 5%. That’s reasonable given that global non-food retailers see 8% to 20% of sales in e-commerce.
What will it take to achieve this?
A reasonable assumption is that an average order in non-food e-commerce is worth P1,000. A Php 4 billion business implies 4 million orders each year. Let’s assume that the average customer orders 2x a year, so that’s 2 million customers. There are 34 million internet users in the Philippines, and 4 million with credit cards. Lazada has also shown that the market is willing to buy via COD – 60-70% of orders in fact. So 2 million online customers isn’t smoking pot.
If we assume customer acquisition cost ranges from P300 to P800 per customer, then that’s marketing spend of P600 million to P1.6 billion a year. If we assume that the fully loaded annual labor cost per head is P700,000 and an FTE of 500 people doing e-commerce, then that’s labor cost of P350 million.
The biggest barrier is rebuilding SM’s inventory management system to allow for real-time omni-channel retail. Some of the use cases are:
- Order online but pick up in-store
- Order online and get fulfillment from the nearest SM Store
- Dynamically show products popular and available within a specified area
- Allow third party merchants to use this platform as a marketplace.
This is a gargantuan task (it took Macy’s three years and counting…) so let’s say it’ll cost P400-P500 million pesos for an IT initiative of this scale (guesses on my end).
The total e-commerce investment (marketing, labor, IT), will thus be P1.35 to P2.45 billion. The combined 2015 capex budget of SM Investments (retail, banking) and SM Prime (property) is P82.8 billion. To dominate local e-commerce, SM just has to spend 3% of capex. A large scale e-commerce program is totally feasible.
The problem is that SM’s corporate planning people will measure ROI wrongly. The assumption is that e-commerce is just another store format. They’ll do something like this: open a Microsoft excel file, estimate future sales from its online store (which, according to Similarweb, has shockingly less traffic than our niche online boutique AVA), tally up the costs, peg a discount rate, and get a net present value, IRR, and payback period.
But e-commerce isn’t a channel. It’s a business model. Treating it like a channel for ROI analysis neglects:
- The impact of omnichannel (higher sales per square foot, higher inventory turnover, more optimized inventory, higher customer loyalty),
- New revenue streams such as search and display ads on an SM-powered marketplace for tenants, and
- The second-order effects of an e-commerce platform (higher payments volume on BDO, higher property prices on SM condos in areas covered by same-day delivery, the intangible value of creating a strategic deterrent against market entry by Alibaba, Rakuten, or Amazon).
Smart retailers like Walmart and Macy’s have learned to measure ROI not on online sales, but on total sales.
This brings us back to Semmelweis and hand washing. In my humble opinion, the reason why it’s hard to make this intellectual leap for any local retailer is that the market is simply dominated by unsubstantiated dogma.
Take this misinformed Cushman & Wakefield report for instance that proclaims that Filipinos “still prefer the traditional bricks and mortar stores“.
Filipinos also love their mobile phones and social media. Online and offline aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re just different use cases. At AVA, 40% of our purchases are made outside of mall hours. To say that consumers “prefer” offline is missing the point – both are part of today’s shopping experience that customers expect. In a few years, there will be no such thing as “e-commerce”. It’ll just be “commerce”.
Another blind spot is the belief that e-commerce is just a website with a checkout page. And because it’s a website, it can be outsourced to a web development agency. Of course, that entirely misses the point because e-commerce requires an organization steep in product management, software engineering, digital marketing, data analytics, operations, customer service, and logistics – a very different skill set from a typical retailer’s.
As an illustration, if you search for “SM Store”, you well get these results.
Any normal user will click on the first link.When you land on the homepage of thesmstore.com, you’ll think you can shop on this site. The nav tabs show “Men”, “Women”, “Kids” and so forth. But when you click on a category, all you’ll see are display ads for existing promos. If you want to actually shop online, you’ll have to do the extra work of either a.) finding the “Shop” button on the upper right (which as any UI person will attest, is less prominent than the upper left side), or b.) go back to search results and click on the second link.
Sorry to be blunt but if the person who designed this UI worked at Rocket Internet, Voyager, or Metrodeal, he’d be fired instantly.
But that’s a minor point.
The more dangerous, deeply held dogma has something to do with how SM (and all local retailers) view their businesses.
In 1979, at the Royal Perth Hospital in Western Australia, pathologist Robin Warren peered into his microscope and saw bacteria in a person’s stomach.
Since the beginning of bacteriology, the dogma was that bacteria could not survive in the human stomach. It was too acidic and thus sterile.
After much research, Warren and a colleague, Barry Marshall, discovered the bacterium H.pylori, debunking decades of dogma. H.pylori was found to cause ulcers. In 2004, Warren and Marshall won the Nobel Prize.
What’s strange is this: Warren wasn’t the first pathologist to see H.pylori in the stomach. Before Warren, samples had to be taken from stomach cadavers where information was already lost. In the 1970s, the invention of the flexible endoscope allowed doctors to extract live tissue from the stomach. Tens of thousands of stomach biopsies were being made yet no doctor or scientist identified H.pylori. They had seen it, but it remained invisible. When everyone reviewed their previous biopsies, they clearly saw H.pylori right there staring them straight at the face. One scientist said, “Failing to discover H. pylori was my biggest mistake“.
In the book “How to Fly a Horse“:
“When Robin Warren accepted his Nobel Prize, he quoted Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. H.pylori hid in plain sight for more than century because of a problem called “inattentional blindness”. Douglas Addams defined this as “Something that we can’t see or don’t see or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. The brain just edits it out; it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. It relies on preople’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”
The scientists saw what they wanted to see – because of the “obvious facts”.
The obvious fact that is causing inattentional blindness is how you look at SM’s business. SM is in retail, property, and banking, right? That’s an obvious fact. In every investor relations material, SM sees its business this way. Everyone sees SM this way.
But consider this future possibility. Let’s start with your BDO credit card. It knew you bought a pair of shoes on Zalora and will thus retarget you with a better offer on the SM Store e-commerce site. When you check-out, you can either have it delivered to your Net Plaza office (geo-tagged, of course – because SM owns Net Plaza – no need to fill out the delivery form), or pick it up at Aura. If you choose the latter, it gives you 50% off a cinema ticket, or a P500 grocery voucher. Oh, by the way, when you order your groceries from the SMCart app (modeled after Instacart, naturally), you get free same day delivery if you live in an SMDC condo. But you still live with your parents, so you search for available units at SMDC’s online marketplace, which also features a mortgage comparison tool powered by BDO. When you do buy your SM condo, it includes a tool to track your power and water consumption. All of this saving and spending can be tracked on your BDO online account, which by the way you can also access on your phone. The app is so smart that it can recommend which items you can save on – and lead you directly where in an SM store you can get the savings.
That’s when you realize that SM is neither in the retail, banking, or property business. It’s in the customer knowledge business.
SM is a big data company masquerading as a conglomerate. And if it can incorporate a software and digital layer on its physical infrastructure, it will be a race ahead of the pack.
The product isn’t a pair of shoes, or a shopping mall, or a credit card. It’s a stack of digital information that can connect separate businesses to generate an unprecedented amount of knowledge about its customers, and power a company that is more responsive to their needs and wants. And imagine if SM’s eco-system of suppliers can tap into this knowledge and customer access via open APIs and marketplaces.
Robin Warren knew that the dogma pre-dated the technology of his time (flexible endoscopes), and this created an opportunity to question the current state of affairs.
For SM, the dogma is the belief that it is merely in the retail business. Its flexible endoscope is the emerging boom in e-commerce, data science, and cloud computing, as well as our new understanding of network effects, winner-take-all dynamics, and platform businesses. This is the underlying philosophy that will guide SM’s digital future.
I of course realize that all of this are easier said than done and there will be a lot of work ahead for local retailers. The historical predisposition of Filipino companies is to aggressively protect its turf and resist big bets. When the company decided to completely overhaul SM Makati, cannibalize itself, and banish its retail operations to the upper floors in favor of Uniqlo, H&M, and Crate & Barrel, it showed that it can evolve with the times.
The stories on Semmelweis and Warren came from Kevin Ashton’s book, “How to Fly a Horse“. I enjoyed reading it.