Stephan Veyret fell in love with Singapore 23 years ago. The young French businessman was visiting the Lion City for the first time while working in Shanghai for the international sports retail giant Decathlon as a legal manager. 

Veyret recently made the move, mid-pandemic, to a Singapore hugely changed. But his passion for the Red Dot remains. As he settled into his new role as CEO of Decathlon Singapore, he spoke to Southeast Asia Globe editor Amanda Oon about Asian markets, the next era of “phygital” and building a sustainable, socially conscious business.

What was it about Singapore and its business landscape that attracted you to move here?
I knew I definitely wanted to come here and work because of the environment. It is a very densely populated city, but also very green, so there are a lot of spaces and places to play sport, to walk around as a family. It’s a very good fusion between the urban world and natural space.

Singapore is also a great place to innovate and to embrace new technologies. [It’s] a relatively new country as well. So you have this young innovation [in a] giant company, almost like a start-up. Now [at Decathlon Singapore] we have reached a size where we definitely need to go to the next step: the transition to an agile and innovative company. And then to make sure that we have the right people and to empower them with the responsibility to lead their projects.

Where is your favourite place in Singapore?
With the family we spend time in MacRitchie reservoir [which] is absolutely amazing. For the social part, Dempsey Hill is also very nice.

Your first experience with Asian markets was in China. What differences and similarities have you found between the Chinese and Singaporean markets?
I was on the Chinese project 23 years ago, and 23 years ago China had just opened up to foreign investment. I remember we were only 200 French people at the time. I think now there are more than 20,000. So it was really the beginning. And it was a pioneering journey.

Here in Singapore, it’s [also] a very new journey. But the country is very mature to retail, very mature to innovation, to sport. The participation is great. I’ve spent 6-and-a-half years in the UK and I remember working with Sports England. The active population was 23%. It is more than 60% here in Singapore.

What is great here compared to China as well is you can play a sport all year round, because the weather conditions are very favourable. So it makes it a very interesting playground to develop our activities.

The consumption in China has evolved a lot. And in terms of innovation, I think China is really taking the lead on the switch from physical to digital. It is even beyond Singapore. But Singapore is following, and we’re preparing for that.

So is digitalisation a key part of Decathlon Singapore’s post-pandemic strategy?
I think that the talent is not to talk about physical and digital anymore. But to talk about “phygital.” We don’t talk about “omni commerce” anymore, we talk about “uni commerce” because there is only one commerce, one need, one retail and one customer at the end of the day consuming different channels.

Over the past 10 years we’ve seen a rise in the ecommerce part of our business. The shares are increasing little by little, and maybe the pandemic has accelerated this trend. During the lockdown, you saw ecommerce really surging. But as soon as we are back to normal operations, then you see a massive amount of people coming back to the stores. We have to be conscious that shopping is a leisure in our societies. So people go out to enjoy browsing in stores. And that’s why we call our stores “experience stores,” because you come to a place where you can really live an experience. You can render some services that you cannot render online. I think that the store will remain the main driver for the business.

At some stage, you have to also look for what the digital giants are doing. I don’t think that Amazon opened Amazon Go just for fun. It’s because the digital model also has its limit. They are trying to enter into this physical world to create what we call “business tomorrow,” which is to be a hybrid between physical and digital.

We don’t want to go 100% digital and that’s very important. Physically and digitally, there are no two channels or two worlds. So there is only one world now and the talent – especially with retail companies – is how do I merge these two?

How is Decathlon merging the physical and digital, and using new technologies to complement the in-person experience?
It’s very important to see that digital will complement the business, not only for the customers but also for our teammates. First is to try to eliminate the non-added value tasks that are very repetitive. We have a robot doing some inventories on its own. That’s an initiative that was initiated in Singapore and now duplicated in other countries.

In small stores where we cannot display all our tents, we use VR (virtual reality). So you have the impression that you are in the showroom with all the tents you can imagine.

We have the foot scanner, as well, in our stores here in Orchard Road, where you can actually take the shape of your feet and what is your size and it’s also for kids to predict when they will have to change the shoes. Orchard Road’s is Decathlon’s most used foot scanner in the world. It shows Singaporeans’ appetite for new technologies.

Another key mission of Decathlon is sustainable, socially conscious business. How are you implementing this at Decathlon Singapore?
We’ve paid a lot of attention to being involved in the local community by supporting local initiatives and by developing our local people. Ninety percent of our recruitments are in the local community and Decathlon is a fantastic school of development. All the top management started as a trainee or as a part-time worker. We give opportunities to local members of the community, even if you don’t have a degree, to still grow in the company and to develop.

We have a programme called Decathlon Activities where we bring people to play sport in our stores or in physical places next to our stores. We brought 15,000 people together last year despite the pandemic. But our aim is to bring 100, 200, 300,000 people together and that’s where the help of the technology can be very useful. During the pandemic, for example, people couldn’t come to the stores physically. So we created live streams or and had [virtual] classes where everyone  could practice at the same time with one coach.

I don’t think we’re going to be able to sell 10 times more product in the future. But I think that we can create from each product 10 times more value. So I really want to put a zero-waste target to the team. [We ask ourselves] if today, I sell a bike, how can I repair it? Can I put it on the secondary market? And at the end of the cycle, when we cannot resell it anymore, how can we take the spare part and use it on some other bike?

I have two kids and I can tell you, a bike doesn’t last long, because six months or one year later it’s too small. And so basically, what you have to do is to buy another one. And that’s a programme that can be also very meaningful; a 10-year programme that supports your kids in cycling, and each time you need to, you can lease a bike which fits, and when your kid outgrows it, we take the other one back and put it again in the system.

We are a sporting company and the world is our playground. So we have to protect our playground. I cycle a lot with my son in the forest. I’m a diver. And I’ve seen the changes in the ocean. We have to protect our oceans to make sure that our kids and our grandkids will still be able to see the beauty of corals. More than just a personal belief, I think this is a mission that Decathlon has for the future.

What are your main aims and goals for the future?
There is a fantastic background here to tap into the start-up world. And we will create an incubator next year, to make sure that we can tap into the start-up scene in Singapore [and] help some start-ups develop their projects. We help them to develop and, in return, they bring us technology and the know-how and, of course, their energy and their creativity.

After 23 years, it’s also very exciting to work with different cultures with different people in Singapore, a multicultural hub.

Children take part in a Decathlon Activities skateboarding class in Singapore. Photo: supplied

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