'All hell broke loose': Seah Kian Peng reflects on what happened after DORSCON Orange

'As you reflect, I think it's not unexpected. It's natural for anyone to feel that. Because we're essential services.'

Ashley Tan | May 18, 2020, 09:53 PM

Singapore's switch to DORSCON Orange could be said to be momentous in its own right—it was the first time the government had made such as decision since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.

The switch came with a slew of precautionary measures meant to safeguard the population against the budding outbreak of Covid-19 in the country.

And along with it, some rather unprecedented and unexpected bouts of shopping at local supermarkets like FairPrice, which bore the brunt of the crowds.

In a May 15 Skype interview with CNBC host Christine Tan as part of the "Managing Asia" series, Group CEO of FairPrice Group Seah Kian Peng shared more details about his experience during that period and how FairPrice coped with the surge in demand.

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Next on #ManagingAsia, I talk to @seahkianpeng #CEO of Singapore’s largest supermarket chain #NTUC #FairpriceGroup about #panicbuying during #COVID19 & challenges of providing essential food & grocery items as delays in air & sea transportation disrupt conventional supply lines @cnbcinternational @cnbcipr

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"We had to scramble"

Tan kicked off the interview by asking Seah what the situation was like on Feb. 7, the day Singapore raised the DORSCON level to orange.

Seah candidly shared that despite the slow build-up of crowds at stores before the government's announcement, "all hell broke loose" once the announcement was made.

He recalled the strain and anxiety FairPrice staff faced, the midnight meetings and amidst the tense situation, how he did not have time to consult his corporate communications team in crafting a statement. He quickly posted something on Facebook to urge customers to remain calm.

However, Seah explained that the reaction was understandable as supermarkets are an essential service, and acknowledged that customers might have succumbed to herd mentality, resulting in the rush grab items.

"As you reflect, I think it's not unexpected. It's natural for anyone to feel that. Because we're essential services – you’d want to make sure that there is food on the table. There will be a case where I will not be able to go out or I can't get the things I need for my family. You can understand why people wanted to go to the stores today and not tomorrow; and then, having gone to the stores, they wanted to buy more than what they needed. And it was a bit of peer pressure or you could say, herd mentality that when I saw someone else buying, I think I’d better buy a bit more."

Singapore imports from around 70 different countries

Tan addressed the issue of people in Singapore hoarding toilet paper, something which had been the subject of scrutiny by other countries.

However, Seah stated that this was subsequently a phenomenon which all countries experienced, including the U.S., United Kingdom or Australia.

Toilet paper is a coveted item, along with other necessities such as rice and instant noodles. The demand for the former could even be said to be traced back to historic events and its association with crises.

FairPrice chose to tackle the large demand by imposing purchase limits on highly-sought after items and soothe worried customers by inviting media to a tour of the supermarket's fully stocked warehouses.

Tan used this opportunity to ask if Seah could share more about the size of the stockpiles and how long they would last.

Seah though, only shared that they import food from around 70 countries, and were continuously looking to diversify their sources and suppliers.

Nevertheless, this was still a "work in progress", Seah said.

As a country reliant on imports, Singapore has national stockpiles of goods, the size and locations of which are kept secret.

At the start of the outbreak, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing assured Singaporeans that there were ample stocks in the warehouse—two months worth of stockpiles of protein and vegetables, to be specific.

Experimenting with a "dark" store to cope with online orders

In response to another of Tan's questions on FairPrice's online platforms, Seah shared that the surge in volume of online shopping has been four to five-fold.

Although FairPrice has been "unable to cope to meet all the demand", they have been increasing their capacity to as much as the infrastructure technology allows.

Seah even even revealed a tidbit of information—to cope with the rise in online orders, one of FairPrice's physical stores has been turned into a "dark" store.

"The third thing which we are now trying out - at this very moment, we have closed one of our physical stores to turn it into what we call a “dark” store, which means that the public cannot go in. We converted this physical store into a “dark” store to do purely online orders. Will there be a second dark store? I think I will not rule that out."

Seah did not reveal the location of the store which has been closed.

Congratulated rival Sheng Siong

Tan brought up the surge in revenue rival supermarket Sheng Siong has seen since the start of the pandemic.

Seah then congratulated the CEO, Lim Hock Chee, for doing a "great job", and added that he was a "very nice, hardworking and humble man".

FairPrice, like all supermarket chains, had seen a huge increase in sales during this period, Seah said.

Referring to how Sheng Siong rewarded their employees with an extra month's salary, Tan also asked if FairPrice would be rewarding their employees "in terms of salary".

Seah said "yes, certainly", but did not elaborate on the specifics.

When probed further by Tan on the amount of revenue FairPrice had gained, Seah hedged that much of their profits are returned back to the community through charity causes or other community groups.

He continued that as FairPrice is "not a listed company, profit maximisation is not important for us". However, he eventually conceded that FairPrice's profit margins are smaller than Sheng Siong's.

Reacted swiftly after staff tested positive

Tan also touched on the topic of a confirmed Covid-19 case involving a FairPrice employee at the Bedok Mall outlet.

The shuttered store on April 1 drew curious onlookers and photos were subsequently circulated on social media, even sparking the spread of fake videos accusing the supermarket of not properly disinfecting the premises.

Seah told Tan that the employee who tested positive had actually informed the company the night before FairPrice was notified by authorities, and swift action was then taken as a precaution.

"The next morning, we took a decision. We told all our staff at that particular store, don't come to work, stay at home, check your temperature etc; and we closed the store. Theoretically, after you do the deep cleaning of the store, you can actually open the store the following day, but we chose to open three days later."

The employee has since recovered and is back at work, Seah shared.

When asked what other measures FairPrice took to ensure their employees stay safe, Seah said that some of their first steps were to equip everyone with three-ply surgical masks, thermometers and sanitisers.

Staff from the headquarters would also regularly communicate with those on the ground, and would head down to the stores if any employee required help.

This is the "new norm"

To end off the interview, Tan asked if Seah was hopeful that things would recover by the end of the year.

Seah admitted that there was "no status quo to go back to", and that this pandemic had irrevocably altered the situation in Singapore.

"The new norm will be really a new norm - the way we affect individuals, families, businesses, organisations and the government. I think a lot of things will change, but history has shown that human beings and certainly Singaporeans are resilient."

He urged the people of Singapore to stick together to tide through these trying times.

You can read the full transcript of the interview here.

Top photo from @christinecnbc / IG and Ashley Tan