Inhabiting Asia: honestbee plans Asian expansion with first brick-and-mortar venture

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

habitat, which is touted as the world's first tech-enabled, cashless grocery and dining concept, is situated on 60,000 sq ft of industrial space in Pasir Panjang. ©honestbee
habitat, which is touted as the world's first tech-enabled, cashless grocery and dining concept, is situated on 60,000 sq ft of industrial space in Pasir Panjang. ©honestbee

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Singaporean e-commerce firm honestbee has opened habitat by honestbee — its first brick-and-mortar outlet — diversifying its once fully online business to "be closer to customers".

habitat by honestbee, which is touted as the world's first tech-enabled, cashless grocery and dining concept, is situated on 60,000 sq ft of industrial space in Pasir Panjang.

Its features include restaurants and cafés, a retail innovation lab, and a supermarket that carries over 20,000 items across 15 F&B concepts, as well as a completely cashless payment system. Customers make all their payments via the e-wallet function beePay on the honestbee app, to which credit cards can be linked.

habitat by honestbee's two other key tech features are AutoCheckout and RoboCollect, both said to be the first of their kind globally.

The former allows shoppers with over 10 items to go through an AutoCheckout lane and scan their honestbee app's QR code on a reader, thus ensuring their purchases are automatically scanned and bagged.

The latter is an automated robotic collection point, where shoppers can collect their bags. According to honestbee, five minutes is all it takes to process orders between checkout and collection.

The store is also a fulfilment centre where online orders are packed, then picked up for delivery.

Platform for partnerships

With habitat by honestbee, honestbee aims to provide an innovative retail platform for both finished products and fresh produce, as well as partner with F&B establishments that may want to experiment with different menus or concepts.

Pauline Png, MD of habitat by honestbee, told FoodNavigator-Asia​: "A lot of them are only doing B2B right now, but they want to get into retail, so this is a research and information centre for them.

"They can basically plug and play. We provide them with infrastructure, a mobile payment system, logistics, and customer service, so they don't have to do this from scratch or incur technological or operational costs. They just have to focus on their own products and services."

Through habitat by honestbee, honestbee partners with farmers and manufacturers and takes care of the necessary steps to get their produce and products to consumers, while simultaneously offering them a platform to showcase products that might be uncommon in Singapore and other parts of Asia.

Png said, "We are very keen to work with such farmers and manufacturers, because in doing so, we can educate people and expand their food appreciation."

The products on habitat by honestbee's shelves are sourced — either directly or through partners — from a wide variety of countries, including Singapore, Thailand, India, Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands and Norway.

The offline experience

Png also explained why honestbee decided to launch habitat by honestbee: "As an online business in food, we found it limiting not to have an offline experience for customers to touch, taste, learn about and be inspired by food.

"Since the launch of NewGen Retail via habitat by honestbee— which offers innovation in retail technology to enhance human interaction — we've closed this gap and provided a full ecosystem to customers and partners via the improved checkout and collection processes, e-payments, and customer service solutions.

"The reason we coined NewGen Retail is to show we're different not just because of our technology in retail. There are many industry players who focus a lot on convenience, which is good, but we wanted more interaction (with customers)."

She added that with technology taking care of the less enjoyable elements of shopping, customers could focus more on the 'fun' parts of the experience, including sampling the fresh produce and meats available.

In fact, they can purchase such items and pay an additional S$8 for them to be cooked and prepared on the premises, so they can tuck in at one of the venue's dining areas. Those who would like to pair their food with wine or other types of alcohol can do so for a nominal corkage fee.

The on-site F&B offerings include freshly made waffles and pancakes, grilled meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly baked bread, bubble tea, coffee, alcoholic beverages.

At the same time, habitat by honestbee boasts what it calls the Beauty Bar, which is essentially the store's bathroom area that doubles as a skincare and toiletry station where customers can sample and purchase lotions, fragrances, scrubs and other such products.

While this concept may draw comparisons to​ Alibaba's digitally enabled supermarket chain Hema or's 7Fresh grocery stores, honestbee prefers to refrain from pitting one concept against another.

Png said, "We prefer not to compare ourselves. What we want to do is provide a NewGen Retail experience that not only focuses on technology and transactions but also the quality of human interaction.

"We value the experience and provide an educational space for immersion. With checkouts, bagging and paying out of the way, customers can focus on enjoying the space with good quality food and drink."

Is the price right?

While customers tend to perceive items purchased through e-commerce as generally cheaper than items purchased at physical stores, honestbee maintains that its prices are the same both online and offline.

Png said, "The prices are actually the same online and offline. Even here, you are shopping online in a sense, except that you are able to experience the products (in real life).

"Things may seem cheaper online but the logistics — such as packing and home delivery — are expensive, whereas here, you buy things in-store and take them home on the spot.

"It's really a balance of different types of costs. Both are expensive to run, but the costs come from different areas. We also have to keep our prices very competitive, though certain items like our bread cost a bit more, because we use high-quality ingredients to make them. But other than that, we try to keep prices low."

She added that aside from value for money, quality was the honestbee's main focus, especially at habitat by honestbee.

"(For instance), we allow customers to order from our butchery and seafood counters and have them cooked on the spot for a relatively inexpensive fee. This delivers incredible value to consumers as they can have these fresh meats and seafood, and alcohol for much less than it would cost them at restaurants."

honestbee has plans to launch habitat by honestbee in its other existing markets — Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Png revealed: "We've already had some requests from other countries to bring this concept to them. You don't have this concept anywhere else in South East Asia — in fact, outside of China, there isn't something similar (in Asia)."

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