Revitalising the TCM family business with ecommerce

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Ecommerce is seldom mentioned in the same sentence as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But Bobby Ng of Thye Hin Hoe Medical Store wants to change that by taking his business online and engaging a younger audience. Find out how the third-generation leader of this 61-year business is turning TCM around.

Tucked away in Bedok Central is Thye Hin Hoe Medical Store, a household name among many elderly residents.

Filled with antique wooden medicine chests and equally ancient-looking machines to roast and slice Chinese herbs, time feels like it has stood still in this shop that was first set up in 1957.

Its best-selling medicinal products, from American ginseng to Angelica root, are still wrapped in bright pink packets ­and tied with a string – instantly recognisable as traditional packaging for TCM.

Business is brisk at the cramped store, which looks like any other neighbourhood shop. But manning the counter is 35-year-old Bobby Ng, the unlikely young face and the company’s business development manager.

And he is on a mission to update the traditional business to reach a younger audience – with the help of ecommerce.

Explaining his zeal to refresh the business, he said: “Bedok was a prosperous and bustling town, but the demographic here is ageing rapidly.” In order to remain relevant, Bobby wants to appeal to his next generation of customers: the millennial.

To connect with a younger crowd, he decided to go beyond a physical store and take the shop online.

While combining age-old TCM with new-age ecommerce seems like a mammoth task, Bobby is aided by Shoptiq, which comes with all the tools to easily create, build and grow an online business.

“This website is an avenue to build on the business and reach out to more people. I want to attract more young people to buy TCM,” he said.

“As we only have one shop, footfall is affected by factors such as the weather. If it’s a rainy day, our business is affected. With a website, shoppers can access our store more readily.”

A local, household name

Bobby’s grandfather started the shop at Geylang Serai, before moving to Haig Road, and then finally settling down in Bedok in 1987. Bobby’s father, who took over the reins in 1977, made the decision to move to Bedok – then a bustling town with a mature population.

While most of Bobby’s customers today are older folks in their 50s to 80s, he is confident of connecting with a new breed of health-conscious and tech-savvy younger customers.

“TCM is not a dying trade,” he stressed. “It focuses on a person’s qi, or vitality of a person. It seeks to improve a person’s health and well-being.”

Over the years, the shop has also expanded to sell common household products and toiletries such as soap and shampoo, in a bid to be a one-stop shop for customers.

Breaking the traditional mindset

Bobby grew up helping out at the store during weekends or school holidays. While he picked up skills such as identifying common herbs and prescriptions, he did not plan to join the family business.

After graduating from university with a business and marketing degree in 2008, he entered the banking industry. But the long and irregular hours left him jaded.

“There was no time for social life. I also felt the work wasn’t fulfilling,” he said. He eventually left his banking job in 2012, and focused on growing the family business.

But it was not without challenges. He was intent on bringing new marketing strategies to expand the traditional business, but was met with resistance from his parents.

His parents, who wanted to limit Thye Hin Hoe to a small family business, were contented with their current brick-and-mortar store and were not open to taking risks.

“My family has always had a traditional mindset when it comes to doing business. If we were to expand, for instance, they would want it to go through relatives or someone related to us,” he said.

“They always tell me not to expand the store too much, as they have seen many who have done so but went bust.”

New ways, same heart

Bobby managed to convince them of his new business strategy with results. He revamped operations and infused new elements into the business using technology.

Four years ago, he installed an electronic point-of-sale system. It tracks the items customers buy, collects data and generates sales report.

This is in stark contrast to the past, where products were individually labeled with price tags and each sale was manually tracked and calculated. Moving away from such outdated practices meant the business could become more efficient and manpower-lean.

With ecommerce, Bobby hopes to expand the reach of the business without physically opening a second outlet, saving on rental and the manpower cost of running another shop.

“Rental is high these days and it’s killing a lot of businesses. So expanding into an online business is in a sense ‘safer’,” he shared. “Our business has so far relied on word-of-mouth marketing, but more people are doing online shopping.”

He added: “We can’t always have the static shop, waiting for people to come. We have to go and get new customers and that is what we are trying to do online.”

Ecommerce could just be the smart solution that sparks a retro revival for this traditional family business.

Tucked away in Bedok Central is Thye Hin Hoe Medical Store, a household name among many elderly residents." data-share-imageurl="https://www.shoptiq.com.sg/sites/default/files/Bobby-TCM-Shoptiq-HighRes-8%20%284%29-compressed_0.jpeg">

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