The case for digital business models in a new world

QR code payment used at Geylang Apam Pulau Pinang stall at Geylang Serai Market and Food Centre on Sept 21, 2018.
Having QR codes in place for digital payments is just a first step. Having analysed data in recent months, Facebook and Bain & Company expect that 70% of all consumers in Southeast Asia are likely to have gone online by the end of the year.   This is a mammoth shift with significant implications for businesses, going beyond consumer goods companies.
SEPTEMBER 28, 2020 - 2:28 PM

When Singapore announced its circuit breaker earlier this year, a Citi client in the Food & Beverage sector realised that the curtain had come down on its sales model, with 90 per cent of its physical sales channels shut down. 

The issue had to be tackled effectively and urgently.  The only answer was to go digital.  But this time not as an add on prop, but rather as front and center of the company’s sales strategy.

That realisation saw the client execute on a direct Business to Consumer (B2C) model in just over a week.

A QR code payment solution now enables its customers to pay through their banking apps and digital wallets on their smart phones and iPads. Incoming payments are instantly credited to the client’s bank accounts, enabling efficient reconciliation to better manage another  challenge of the pandemic - liquidity.

Upon going live, the company recorded close to a thousand transactions in the first few days alone.

Your feedback is important to us

Tell us what you think. Email us at

Over and above dealing with the impact of the pandemic, the success of the digital solution has encouraged the client to look at similar solutions across their other markets in Asia Pacific.

Consumers’ habits and preferences have been forced to change due to social distancing and lockdowns.

While no one can predict when normalcy may return in full force, the realisation is that the pandemic bell cannot be unrung. Similarly, the long-term advantages of a model that incorporates digital to serve customers cannot be ignored.

Fast-Forward: Offline to Online

The pandemic has ‘hyper-driven’ what was already a massive shift to digital.

Companies that had sat on the fence on fully embracing digital models now see there is no choice. On the back of this shift, businesses that were already engaging with consumers digitally have been able to weather the storm from a position of greater resiliency.

Last year, a report released by Facebook and Bain & Company, Riding the Digital Wave, estimated that the number of digital consumers in Southeast Asia would increase to 310 million by 2025.

Now, given the impact of the pandemic, that 310 million number is expected to be reached by the end of this year, five years ahead of what was initially estimated.

Having analysed data in recent months, Facebook and Bain & Company expect that 70 per cent of all consumers in Southeast Asia are likely to have gone online by the end of the year.  

This is a mammoth shift with significant implications for businesses, going beyond consumer goods companies. 

Sectors including healthcare are already witnessing significant change. In India, for example, the potential for online medicine has prompted companies including Reliance and Amazon to move into this space. In Asean, there is tremendous room for growth for this emerging digital business model, driven by fundamentals including population growth, a fragmented healthcare market and digital propensity. 

Across various sectors, we are increasingly supporting clients’ digitisation efforts. In the automobile sector, a client automated payments by enabling direct debit capabilities for its customers. Separately in insurance, another client leveraged QR code payments so that customers could seamlessly purchase products online.

Companies realise that things need to start changing.

A survey we conducted with our clients earlier this year found that 73 per cent of those polled viewed starting or expanding their online sales model as an immediate priority. 

Close to 69 per cent were considering developing their own e-commerce platforms, and over half, or 53 per cent, were looking at third-party marketplaces to engage their customers digitally. 

Digital for a Leading Customer Experience

In an ‘always-on’ economy, investing in digital business models and direct-facing customer channels is a win-win for companies and the customers they serve. 

With digital commerce even further in the spotlight, being able to offer a desired customer experience is critical for any business. 

As a start, a digital platform gives customers the ability to transact anytime, anywhere and in whichever manner they might prefer. This is particularly important in Asia Pacific, including Asean, where credit card penetration in some markets is very low and where digital payments adoption is being actively driven through the implementation of domestic instant payment networks and the connectivity of these networks to wallets as well as bank accounts.

For companies, this is an opportunity to employ more innovative and emerging payment technologies, with the ability to optimise efficiencies. 

Coupled with the use of APIs, or Application Program Interfaces, businesses can provide seamless payments while also supporting and automating their own reporting and reconciliation needs. 

According to industry data, instant payments volume growth across markets in the region have been increasingly significantly, from 69 per cent in India [September 2019 to August 2020] to 107 per cent in Singapore [August 2019 to July 2020] and 180 per cent in Hong Kong [September 2019 to August 2020], to name a few. As businesses increasingly digitise their models, Citi’s API client base in Asia Pacific has doubled year-on-year in the first half of this year. API volumes have increased five-fold in the same period.

Becoming increasingly digital also offers companies the benefit of better visibility and data insights. Using analytics to unlock the value of aggregate data gives companies the ability to engage their customers differently.

With a more agile and sophisticated approach, customers benefit from an increasingly personalised experience as companies retain loyalty and expand opportunities for the future. 

No Better Time than the Present

Through different crises, we have seen time and time again, that being able to adapt is what enables businesses and individuals to outlast challenges.

An omni-channel approach, where physical and digital sales channels co-exist, will be core to the future. This is a potential “Kodak Moment” for businesses. Now is the time for action.


The writer is head of Asia Pacific treasury and trade solutions at Citi.