It’s safe to say that even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, physical retail was already experiencing a bit of an existential crisis. Every few months, you might read news about the state of physical retail being in a dire state.

It’s enough to give any retailer sleepless nights, especially one with a long history in Singapore like Mothercare, which has 10 stores here.

Group managing director Pang Fu Wei describes it as a fast-paced sector within a fast-paced sector, catering to a “very narrow subset of consumers” – parents in their 20s and 30s.

Another hitch is the falling birth rate and how Pang acknowledges this demographic readily “embraces change and new technology”. And it’s not a particularly forgiving market – Mothercare UK’s operations were put into administration at the end of 2019, shuttering all 79 of its stores.

In Singapore, under 32-year-old Pang’s watchful eye, things seem to be thriving, all thanks to changes implemented before the pandemic hit.

Since he took the reins a few years ago, Mothercare opened its first “experience store” at its Harbourfront flagship in 2019. It features trial areas for baby carriers, overhead bins usually found in planes to test cabin-approved strollers, a stroller test track and an Ikea-esque model nursery. Its staff have been trained to deliver personalised advice based on an individual’s needs.

And it’s not just the store’s features, but the attention to details that count. For instance, the Mothercare Experience Store has weighted dolls to simulate the weight of typical newborns of various ages up to a year old, enabling customers to make better-informed purchase decisions.

These changes have been met with so much success that Mothercare is revamping its Paragon outlet to feature the same ideas. “What we did was to go back to the drawing board and study how customers think to understand their unmet needs and add value to their shopping experience. If your physical retail space can’t do that, why would they shop with you when they can simply buy it online?”

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The bigger question then might be, why aren’t more retailers following suit?

“It’s hard. It’s really hard,” Pang admits. Even something as seemingly mundane as enabling a click-and- collect system that allows shoppers to buy online and collect their purchases an hour later required an overhaul of Mothercare’s systems, along with upending established workflow processes for nearly every employee.

“Was there a lot of pain, a lot of frustration? There was,” says Pang. “But I believe people understood the need for such changes. Every chance I had, I talked to my team and explained my vision and why we’re doing it.”

Suffice to say, Pang’s work is far from over. Speaking about his goals for 2021, he touches on Retail 2.0 (customer first, experiential retail and omnichannel retail), implementation of new digital systems, getting back to growth and “a new business”.

But at the heart of it all is still the customer. “My challenge as a business is to adapt quickly to my customers’ channel preferences. When a market reaches maturity, as consumers become savvier, it’s no longer just about the big brand names or good products. Millennials, particularly, want to know what your brand stands for. It’s the shifting sands of retail. That’s what we need to continue working on.”

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In pole position

Pang Fu Wei

It probably speaks to how much confidence McLaren Qualified – the British supercar manufacturer’s official pre-owned programme – inspires that when Pang pulled the trigger on his McLaren 12C, one of his dream cars growing up, he didn’t even take it for a test drive.

In addition to the multitude of checks carried out even before a pre-owned McLaren can, well, qualify to be called a McLaren Qualified car, it also provides up to a 24-month warranty post-purchase, along with the completion of any upcoming routine servicing or maintenance.

Asked why he chose to get his 12C through McLaren Qualified instead of through any other dealer, he said, “For peace of mind. There are many horror stories of people buying supercars and spending huge sums of money almost immediately after on repairs.”

When buying a car through McLaren Qualified, “you have full-service records and, if anything happens, I know I can just send it back to McLaren and it’ll be taken care of.”

But perhaps the most ringing endorsement McLaren Qualified could get from Pang is if he would consider using the programme again or even purchase a new McLaren in the future. “I absolutely would,” he quips.

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