Terry O’Connor on achieving the unexpected in retail


Award-winning businessman Mr Terry O’Connor OBE is one of the most recognisable and quotable CEOs in Singapore. Known for his dedication to his company, his candid opinions and his ability to overcome adversity, Mr O’Connor has led Courts Asia from struggle to strength. Courts, a growing electrical, IT and furniture retailer, is on the rise in Asia. Under the leadership of Mr O’Connor, Courts Asia has expanded across Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In this interview, the retail maverick shares his insights on successful retail in Asia.

Q: Having worked for the brand since 1993, what have been the greatest challenges for the company – specifically, for retailing in the digital age?

Courts’ heritage was in furniture and I joined the business in 1993 to spearhead its entry into the electrical space. As Courts was new to how an electrical retailer works, I found myself with the challenge of growing a new category from scratch and taking on the role of change advocate internally, given that furniture and electrical buying were as different as chalk and cheese! Closer to present day, there is a lot of buzz around online retailing. I believe the future in retail is neither in pure brickand-mortar nor online. Omni-channel is the way forward in the brave, new world. That said, creating different touchpoints for customers is just scratching the surface. To be successful, a retailer really needs to take a holistic approach from changing the way we work with suppliers to incentivising store staff to embrace online.

“The key to be a future-ready retailer is to understand that retail landscape is changing, appreciate how customers of today shop differently and address this change swiftly.”
Q: Courts Singapore has teamed up with some international trailblazing brands (Ace Hardware and JYSK). What do you look for in a potential partner brand?

The single most important factor is fit. For a partnership to work, both parties need to have the same aspiration and understanding on how to grow the business as well as mutual trust and respect. We prefer to work with partners who adopt a medium to long term investment horizon for the markets they enter as building a brand takes time.
Ace Hardware and JYSK offer products that are adjacent to Courts’ existing products and offerings, allowing us to provide customers with a wider range of selection, which further reinforces our position as a home destination retailer.

Q: Courts has successfully fused online and instore channels to propel the success of both mediums. How can other multichannel retailers achieve this?

It’s an exciting time for online as Southeast Asia is at an inflexion point. We are seeing smartphone penetration close to China, and some 150m consumers going digital. On the supply side, there are more digital offerings available than before, more new payment infrastructure and improved logistics infrastructure.

Courts invested in online when it was in its infancy stage, and one can even argue that we were there too early. We started to see real traction in 2012, when we invested in growing this revenue stream with a decent range of SKUs and improving customer navigation on our website.

That aside, I think the key to be a futureready retailer is to understand that retail landscape is changing, appreciate how customers of today shop differently and address this change swiftly. For instance, the store portfolio strategy may need to change in the future to respond to the waves of changes, so a retailer just needs to be alert to changes and be nimble. I believe if a business was to put the customers at the heart of its business strategy, then they will be able to do what’s right for them, 100% of the time.

“For a partnership to work, both parties need to have the same aspiration and understanding on how to grow the business, as well as mutual trust and respect.”

Q: Courts is successfully gaining great momentum in Asian markets. What insights can you give other retailers wanting to expand into Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia?

Do your market research and be prepared to invest in the long-term. If you are looking for a partner, ensure you and the partner have the right fit. Most American or European brands make the mistake of treating Asia as one region. In reality, the markets are very unique and one needs to understand the local culture and nuances to succeed. Having local talent represented in senior positions is one way to ensure that local considerations are not overlooked by a foreign company entering the market.

Q: What innovations and changes can we expect to see from home and electrical retail within the next 3-5 years?

The brands are predicting that the ‘internet of things’ will be the future. Connectivity across devices will be increasingly commonplace. There is definitely the opportunity for the electrical retailer to upsell an existing customer who comes in for a TV with a full suite of devices, from phones to data plans to installation etc.

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