The Final Destination: E-Commerce

Nuwan Widyapathige, the Chief Operations Officer – E-Commerce at Softlogic Retail Holdings PLC

Nuwan Widyapathige, the Chief Operations Officer – E-Commerce at Softlogic Retail Holdings PLC, began his career journey as a Management Trainee – Sales at E-W Information Systems, which has the honor of being the first IBM business partner in Sri Lanka. 

After two years in Sales, covering both B2B and B2C, I was given the opportunity to run the Corporate Communications function of the company, which was formed based on a proposal given by me. Later, I joined Unilever Sri Lanka as an Assistant Brand Manager and rose through the ranks to become a Senior Brand Manager. I spent nearly 6 years with the company, managing some of its flagship brands such as Lux and Ponds. I joined the Softlogic Group in 2014, as the Head of Marketing of their Insurance arm, back when it was called Asian Alliance. During my tenure, we rebranded the company as Softlogic Life and carried out some effective marketing initiatives, which resulted in the brand becoming one of the top 50 most valuable brands in the country.  I was later appointed as the Sector Head of Marketing of the Financial Services sector of the group where I overlooked the marketing of Softlogic Life, Softlogic Finance and Softlogic Stockbrokers. Since 2019, I’ve been in charge of the E-Commerce Business of the group.” 

Speaking of what drew him to the world of Business, Nuwan explained, “From a very young age, I aspired to be a Marketer. My father who was a Banker, encouraged me to follow that path because he realized that I had the necessary skills that would help me to build a career in Marketing. So, I was reading about Marketing related topics well before my A/Ls and developed an interest in the profession. I’m inspired by creativity and that may have had an influence on my choice of profession as well.” 

When questioned about the most valuable lesson he has learned in his career, Nuwan replied, “There are plenty. But one key principle I have started following is that whilst we are chasing our ambitions, it’s important to enjoy the process. Too many people think career success is about the milestones. But for me, it’s about the journey too.”

Commenting on the commonalities of E-Commerce in various industries, Nuwan said, “Having worked in three distinct E-Commerce categories – Grocery (Glomark), Electronics (MySoftlogic) and Fashion (Odel), I can say that the fundamentals of E-Commerce such as having a good consumer journey with optimized user interfaces, proper logistic infrastructure and systems, and properly managed customer contact points are both necessary and common for any industry.” 

On the topic of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the E-commerce sector of Sri Lanka and how the sector has adapted to these changes, Nuwan stated,During the pre COVID period, one of the biggest challenges for E-Commerce was the typical consumer behavior of Sri Lankans. People in this market generally like to physically examine the products before purchase. That behavior is ingrained in them. They like to touch and feel things before they make a decision. This was enabled by the fact that Sri Lanka is a small geographical community. Thus, it is not as big an issue compared to some of the other markets when it comes to commuting. On a typical Sunday you can travel to any part of your city under one hour and do your shopping without much hassle. That, coupled with the general reluctance to pay online using their plastics had made it very difficult to penetrate the market. But that changed overnight because of the pandemic. However, the sector was not prepared to handle the kind of volumes it received. These types of volumes were not expected to materialize at least for the next 3 years; hence, the infrastructure and resources were not geared to handle it. To make matters worse E-Commerce platforms have had to contend with staff shortages and other regulatory restrictions. The business world uses the word “VUCA”, a military acronym meaning volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous to describe the nature of the challenging environment they operate in. This was the ultimate VUCA environment for E-Commerce businesses to operate in, especially during the first couple of weeks of the pandemic.  For example, there were restrictions on delivery passes, the number of staff who could work on a particular shop floor etc. Also, all the systems and processes they had in place had to be scraped and re-engineered to handle these new realities. The pressure was immense because people were panicking and depending on the supplies from E-Commerce platforms, and showed no patience or empathy towards the challenges the businesses faced. Despite having invested substantially in E-Commerce platforms for over a year and with most of the systems in place, Softlogic still faced initial challenges in catering to the demands, so those who suddenly woke up and realized E-Commerce was no longer an option, but a business priority would have had it really tough.” 

Expressing his opinion on how the pandemic will affect the future of the E-Commerce sector of Sri Lanka, Nuwan disclosed, “According to the general consensus, post COVID we should be able to retain around 30% to 40% of customers on E-Commerce platforms, and with people now being more comfortable with paying with their credit cards, having experienced online shopping, it will be easier to convert more people to E-Commerce. People will still be concerned about the pandemic since we are not out of the woods yet. So generally, they will be reluctant to go to physical stores. In that sense, consumer behavior will be favorable towards the E-Commerce business. Businesses also will have realized the importance of E-Commerce as a channel, especially from the risk and business continuity perspective. COVID-19 will not be the last crisis to hit us. With the kind of issues we are seeing due to the damages to the environment and climate change, we are in for more frequent challenges such as this, which will limit mobility and physical interaction within a society.  Natural evolution has always been towards E-Commerce, which we have seen in other developed markets, hence it will be important for businesses to place more focus and resources in developing it as a channel.” 

“The crisis has given rise to a new set of entrepreneurs who are keen to make use of this opportunity to build new ventures. This will bring more and more people into the ecosystem not only as vendors, but as logistic providers, payment enablers, tech developers etc. So, COVID-19 has led to a faster growth of the E-Commerce sector.” 

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