Shopee overtakes rivals in 7 years, with help of tactics like monthly sales by staff in fast-paced space

Lessons on Leadership: Shopee started as a small fish in the e-commerce business back in 2015. Today, it has overtaken its competitors with addictive jingles, celebrity advertisements and a multitude of features in a single app.

Alfie Kwa | November 12, 2022, 09:55 AM

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Amongst the other buildings in the Science Park area, with similar glass and steel exteriors, Shopee’s bright orange logo plastered on two sides on the highest floor of its sixth-storey building caught my eye.

Located on a hill right by the highway, it was hard to miss, and I believe that was their intention.

Yet, I expected nothing less from the top e-commerce platform in Singapore.

Despite being a relative newcomer to the industry, Shopee has seen much success, overtaking its rivals in application ranking and web visits in 2019.

The e-commerce platform held the top spot among competitors in 2020 and 2021 and looks set to keep the title in 2022 too.

For the past seven years, Shopee’s promotions, vouchers and advertising campaigns have been unceasing — and ever-changing.

Shopee’s regular sales events may seem to run like clockwork, happening every month, but staff are still needed during each event to oversee each new promotion and initiative. And yes — that means busier and longer working hours.

That’s why, as Shopee’s Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) Zhou Junjie pointed out to me, being hardworking, fast-paced, and adaptable to change are some of the key qualities employees need to have.

Their employees’ hard work amid challenging conditions have no doubt yielded results over time — Shopee has risen up the ranks from a nobody among major players to what it is today.

Getting to know Shopee

I arrived at Shopee’s headquarters at noon to meet Zhou.

We were scheduled to have a chat in the meeting room at one end of the cafeteria.

As a group of Shopee employees guided us there, they began pointing out features of the building like a property agent would introduce a home.

One pointed to a sign for the gym. “Some of us will use the gym to relax,” the staff remarked enthusiastically.

Their gym toilets had large showers and hair dryers. And they even have massage rooms and sleeping pods - another thing one of them happily shared with me.

The best part for me was that the cafeteria had two pantries filled with drinks, snacks and ice cream.

Yes, a fully-stocked freezer with ice cream, which I happily took and gobbled up.

We eventually arrived at two sound-proofed meeting rooms with see-through glass doors and windows at the end of the huge cafeteria,

The objective of our visit was laid out to us at least two days before, so going in I knew exactly what to do, and at what time I was suppose to be ready for it.

It was even reiterated again by the minders who were with us — and it was clear and to the point.

At 1:45 pm, I was in the room prepared with my questions and awaiting CCO Zhou.

In the next room, Zhou, wearing a bright, blaring orange Shopee t-shirt, was having a quick check-in with his team before our interview.

Image taken by Alfie Kwa.

He ended the check-in right on time – slightly before our agreed time at 2pm – and came over to the other room for the interview, still holding a file in his hands.

Every aspect of our visit so far had run smoothly and punctually, I noted to myself.

Right then, I noticed a poster on the wall with a guide on how to run an effective meeting.

It was therefore no surprise to me that it read:

  1. Only hold necessary meetings
  2. Send out material 24 hours beforehand
  3. Start on time
  4. Define objectives
  5. Be engaged
  6. Define next steps

The clinical, goal-oriented professionalism that the poster called for was definitely something I had observed in my interactions with Shopee staff so far.

From talking to the staff, observing its headquarters, and speaking to Zhou, I was getting to know more about Shopee from different points of view.

But I couldn’t see into the past and so I asked Zhou what it was like in Shopee’s early days.

Zhuo joined Shopee’s gaming unit Garena about 10 years ago and was the former CEO of Garena Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

He then took on the role of Shopee Singapore’s CCO in 2015, the year Shopee was founded by Li.

“We are not the first ones,” Zhou said about the market at that point. One of Shopee’s priorities as a young company was to get people in the region to know who they were.

“Initially of course, we wanted to get more consumers here to know about Shopee,” Zhou said.

The newcomer faced strong competition from big names: Lazada, Qoo10, EZBuy, and Amazon all had a headstart over them.

But in 2019, the playing field shifted.

Shopee’s rise to the top

It was in 2019 that the company was in the top spot among online shopping platforms, in terms of app downloads on both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, according to iPrice Insights.

But the newcomer was still not seeing as many website visits as its competitors, with Lazada and Qoo10 receiving more than triple what Shopee got.

Looking at the numbers, 2019 to early 2020 was a pivotal time for Shopee. And when I asked Zhou what got them there, he demurred.

Coincidentally, one of Shopee most well-known advertising campaigns featuring football star Cristiano Ronaldo dancing to the jangly tune of Pinkfong’s “Baby Shark” for its 9.9 sale was showcased in 2019.

The 9.9 commercial recorded about 35 million online views in the region, Zhou told Marketing Interactive.

Forrest Li, CEO of Shopee, previously told Business Insider that the successful campaign led them to record three times more orders on Sep. 9, 2019 than it did the year before.

And during its 12.12 Birthday Sale that year, the company sold 80 million items across the region and credits Ronaldo’s campaigns for its success.

Ronaldo fronted Shopee’s campaigns until July 2020.

It seems that Ronaldo put Shopee on the map.

Soon after, in the second quarter of 2020, Shopee overtook Lazada’s monthly web views and has been ahead ever since.

And Zhou was a big part of this journey.

He has been described as a man who “carries with him a wealth of experience and knowledge of the digital e-commerce landscape”, but that landscape is one that keeps changing.

Because of this, Zhou and the company’s focus is constantly spent on tracking trends, especially since customers’ behaviours can be unpredictable.

Zhou described Singapore’s Shopee users as “demanding” customers who “want things to be fast.”

He further explained that customers don’t just come to a shopping app to buy things.

They expect much more.

More than just shopping

From what I gathered, Shopee’s strategy comes down to being relatable to shoppers, keeping them engaged, and perpetually running advertising.

Focussed on localisation

Local stars have been a big part of Shopee’s campaigns over the years.

Many of us would recognise them instantly, except that this time, they’d appear with an orange backdrop, pointing to Shopee’s latest deals and dancing to another jingle that will be stuck in our heads for weeks.

In a series of branding campaigns in 2020, Gurmit Singh portrayed his iconic character, Phua Chu Kang.

Zhou told Marketing Interactive that bringing Singh on board could bring the community close together as his iconic contractor character represents Singapore and her culture.

This is what Zhou describes as a “hyper-localised” approach — understanding what local customers in each market like, and providing it.

Other local entertainers like Mark Lee and Fann Wong have also fronted its marketing campaigns.

Taken from Shopee Singapore Facebook.

Lee, according to Zhou, is someone Singaporeans grew up with, a persona who is familiar across all ages and races.

This year’s sales are no different, again featuring talents from different platforms.

For its 11.11 Big Sale, Shopee is working with SGAG’s Brightman Sio, YouTuber Aylna Neo, TikTok's famed Uncle Raymond, Malay songwriter and singer Rahimah Rahim, and Night Owl Cinematics’ Dasa Dharamahsena — a diverse range of talents whose following spans, multiple age groups.

“This unique talent selection reflects the diversity of our users, and our commitment to delivering a hyper-localised shopping experience,” Zhou said.

In-app entertainment

Seeing as K-pop groups like MAMAMOO and NCT 127 and actor Jackie Chan have been on Shopee’s in-app live streaming feature appears to be a feature they are very invested in.

Zhou said this comes from what Shopee sees its customers wanting from the platform:

“Shoppers today expect more than just transactional experiences; they want entertainment and engagement. Livestreaming is one of the ways we address this need.”

Shopee Live, the company’s live streaming feature, launched in 2019.

It’s fully integrated with the Shopee app, and allows viewers to browse and buy products while watching their favourite streams.

The Shopee Live team regularly produces various content — including a show titled “Mukbang Time” — along with other talk and game shows with food reviews, product demos and more.

At its recent 9.9 Super Shopping Day in Singapore, Shopee Live saw more than 5 million live stream views during the campaign period.

Shopee’s other offering in the entertainment space is games.

One I’ve seen many people playing is Shopee Shake.

From my observation, it’s mostly those from a slightly older demographic looking for the thrill of getting a good deal after aggressively shaking their phones while commuting on the train or bus.

While I’ve personally not played, I can see how it could give a Shopee user more of a reason to shop, as there’s a sense of satisfaction from doing well in the games.

Monthly sales and promotions

Of course, none of these engagement-targeted features is without a purpose.

The stream of Shopee content — advertising campaigns, games and live streams — starts to flow more rapidly in the leadup to each monthly sale.

Keeping this stream flowing is partly why, month after month, sale after sale, shoppers still show up.

Zhou says the most eager shoppers begin camping on the site from around 10pm the day before the sale, before there’s a spike in traffic at midnight when the sale starts.

Last year, Shopee set two new records at its 11.11 Big Sale, in Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

Shoppers across the region bought over 2 billion items, breaking the previous record set in 2020.

Meanwhile, visits to the platform hit an all-time high in the first two hours of Nov. 11, 2021, spiking 5.5 times compared to an average day’s traffic.

Shopee has managed to keep up the demand in its monthly sales, with shoppers anticipating each one.

But as you can guess, it takes a lot to pull this off.

From the advertisements to the games to the live streams, and more, the period leading up to each sale is a hectic one.

“It’s definitely more work,” Zhou commented on the period preceding bigger sales and campaigns like 9.9 and 11.11.

Shopee employees

During these periods, Zhou said he’ll see more people staying back in the office to work.

Ahead of each sale day, the office will be decorated, with refreshments provided and even photo booths to celebrate the campaigns they’ve worked so hard on.

A wall in Shopee’s cafeteria with blocks that can be rearranged. This was the display during this year’s 9.9 sale. Image via Shopee.

The most exciting part is when teams achieve their goals before midnight, when the best of the deals and discounts are released, said Zhou. They celebrate together and take pictures to commemorate the win.

Employees celebrating 9.9 sale. Image via Shopee.

Employees celebrating 9.9 sale. Image via Shopee.

It is after all, “a lot of work” that Shopee's employees put in, said Zhou, again pointing out that each team has to keep up with customers’ constantly changing wants.

That’s why employees need to be able to adapt to changes and be able to work in a fast-paced environment.

He believes the company is a place where young, energetic and hardworking individuals can thrive.

What can Shopee offer these young talents? A chance to work in high-performing teams, to learn and to be challenged, and to see your hard work pay off, says Zhou.

It’s what he believes they value about their work at Shopee.

Zhou also highlighted the importance of feeling a sense of satisfaction from seeing your work make an impact — whether that comes in the form of helping a small business start selling online, helping customers with their orders, or seeing their advertisement campaigns making a splash.

While this may be the case for some driven young employees, others may not appreciate the intensity or the work culture Shopee has to offer.

Shopee has received unfavourable reviews from current and ex-employees, whose accounts of their workplace experience making the rounds online.

Allegations came from Glassdoor reviews, online comments, and screenshots of text messages which characterised Shopee as a workplace that is "toxic, racist, unprofessional, [with] no work life balance."

When asked about these reports, Zhou didn’t address specific cases, but said Shopee has zero tolerance for workplace discrimination or harassment.

He also said they spoke about the matter in their internal town halls and continued with their usual mandatory training courses for managers on how to treat staff.

“The mandatory (online courses are) for everyone to understand what's the right behaviour. Sometimes it could be willful wrong behaviour, sometimes it’s just poor awareness,” Zhou remarked.

But Zhou said these were “very isolated” cases and pointed out that there have not been any similar reports since the matter blew up a year ago.

Their main objective is to not allow more cases to arise and that employees are aware of inappropriate behaviours in the workplace.

As Zhou candidly said, when talking about what kind of employees strive in Shopee, working at Shopee isn’t a walk in the park.

Difficult times ahead

There are signs that Shopee’s meteoric rise may be slowing.

Bloomberg reported that Sea, Shopee’s parent company, saw a drop in its full-year e-commerce revenue outlook in May this year.

This was caused by changes in customer behaviour post-pandemic, as shoppers cut back on online purchases.

Another factor was that many are prioritising essentials in view of a potential recession.

This was followed by staff cuts, which according to The Straits Times, involved a “low single-digit percentage” of Shopee workers being let go.

But all this might be exactly what Zhou meant when he spoke about needing to adapt to the rapidly-changing market conditions, whether favourable or unfavourable.

Lasting impression

At the end of our interview, I asked to take some pictures of Zhou for my article.

The staff immediately stopped me, explaining he needed a touch-up first.

A make-up artist was called in to puff some powder on his face, and Zhou put on a white jacket with a small Shopee logo.

The commotion caught me somewhat off-guard. Zhou had been friendly and down-to-earth throughout, and being kept from taking photos gave me a very different vibe.

But of course, I could understand the need for Shopee to keep up appearances. After all, it isn't a small fish anymore.

As I left the office, Shopee’s newest campaigns were running on repeat on a large screen near the entrance.

And back on the highway, I saw the large Shopee logos on the building once again.

I realised that not a second of the past few hours went by when I was not reminded of the bright orange shopping bag icon.

From Zhou's bright t-shirt to the five-metre-high Shopee wall, to the large Shopee sign right outside the meeting room.

A couple of days later, while changing lines at Serangoon MRT, I saw the entire walkway, from wall to floor, covered in posters about its upcoming 11.11 sale.

If Shopee’s track record is anything to go by, shoppers like me are going to constantly be reminded of the brand, through its aggressive advertising campaigns and catchy jingles.

Shopee is always in sight and never out of mind — and if this is their definition of success, it looks like they are on the right track.

Lessons on Leadership is a Mothership series about the inspiring stories of Singapore’s business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as the lessons and values we can learn from their lived experiences.

Top image via Shopee.

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