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  Today Online 27 Sep 07
Luring eyeballs and the green bug
Retailers tap into trends to ring in big bucks
Jasmine Yin

With international movie stars and politicians championing the green cause, caring for the environment is no longer just trendy but may also spell big business.

United States-based global retailer Wal-Mart is setting up stores that use less energy, while British supermarket chain Asda has made plans to cut down on product packaging that costing some 13 million ($39 million) would equal the price tag of opening two stores.

Such measures by American and British players including Tesco consumer loyalty point awards for recycling and purchasing fair-trade products reflect an emerging global trend in the retail landscape, Mr Steve Ogden-Barnes pointed out yesterday.

Consumers are "more aware about the effects" of their consumption patterns, said the programme director at the Australian Centre for Retail Studies at Monash University, as he addressed an 80-strong crowd at a retail conference.

But these are big organisations that, due to their scale of operation, see a significant impact on their bottom lines, two local retailers told Today.

Smaller retailers may not enjoy the same results. Reducing energy use, for instance, would not result in much cost-savings for a small store, Mr Charles Wong, managing director of Singapore footwear chain Charles and Keith, observed.

But one green idea his firm is looking into is to cut down on packaging by switching to more environmentally-friendly merchandise bags. "I think this is a trend not just for us to sell shoes and chase turnover, but more about corporate social responsibility," he said.

Agreeing, founder-president of 77th Street Elim Chew felt that much hinges on the retailer's business philosophy for it to go green or root for other causes, especially if its operations are not large-scale.

"It is not easy. It is about changing the mindset to be socially- conscious," she said.

Another global retail trend is going online, not just to shop but also to engage consumers and use their feedback to draw in other consumers, noted Mr Odgen-Barnes.

One lingerie retailer, which launched an online review and rating service for its products, received more than 1,700 reviews within two months.

Statistics estimate online transactions form up to 10 per cent of sales across different retail categories. It is only about a quarter of what web-influenced sales or sales closed as a result of what consumers see and hear on the Internet potentially rake in, he argued.

This was further reinforced by last year's data from the Henley Centre that another speaker Mr Bill Webb from the London College of Fashion presented yesterday: That personal recommendations, price-comparison websites and customers' Internet opinions were among the top five most trusted sources of information.

Last on the list were TV, newspapers and magazines, and salespeople in shops.

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