KUALA SELANGOR, Selangor: Drink sipped. Cigarette lit. Price list hurriedly displayed. And, action. The fishmonger turned to his customers and greeted them with a toothy grin.
Seated behind gaping fishes sprawled on ice, he deftly fielded customers’ questions, laughed at their jokes, haggled with low-ballers, and sneaked – not very surreptitiously – a smoke behind an upright clipboard.
It looked like a typical scene at the fish stall of a market, except he was talking to nobody. Nobody in front of him, at least.
In fact, Mr Heng Jin Chon, who runs Tiong Fishery in the serene seafood hub of Kuala Selangor, was addressing a smartphone camera, which was rolling a Facebook Live feed. About 10,000 pairs of eyeballs tuned in to his videos from all over Malaysia, even Singapore.
Welcome to the world of Facebook Live bidding, seafood edition. Auctions have long been a tradition of the fishing industry, but mostly between fishermen and wholesalers at the docks.
Taking these auctions online, however, means the fishing industry can now hook up with everyday consumers directly.
In these Facebook Live auctions, each lot – usually a combination of different seafood and fishes – is displayed. Those watching would post their bidding price in the comments section, and the highest bidder within a stipulated time wins the lot.
The successful bidders typically make payment via bank transfer, and the produce will be delivered to their doorsteps via third-party transporters. Those who bid but do not pay will risk being blacklisted by the video host.
Mr Heng, like many other fishmongers in Malaysia turning to Facebook Live auctions, said he was inspired by a trend in Taiwan.
Coming from a fishing family, he used to be a fishmonger at a wet market in Kuala Lumpur – a two-hour drive from where he lives. His seafood supply comes from his relatives, who are fishermen.
“I used to wake up at 3am every morning to load the seafood and drive two-hours to sell them. It was tiring,” the 35-year old recounted to CNA.
“Since I started auctioning the catches through Facebook Live last July, I just start the bidding around 7pm and finish up around midnight, then I can sleep in the next day.”
No longer limited to the ebb and flow of a wet market’s traffic, the world is his oyster. Mr Heng said his sales have gone up tenfold compared with selling at a physical stall. After deducting the operational and delivery costs, he now earns three times more.
On average, Malaysians eat 56.5kg of fish per person each year, which is more than double the world average of under 20kg per capita, according to intergovernmental fishery organisation Infofish in 2014.
Prices have grown along with demand. Last June, the Marine Fish Farmer Association Malaysia’s deputy president, Mohamed Razali Mohamed, told reporters that the price of a kilogram of mackerel increased from RM5 (US$1.20) a decade ago to RM12 and above.
As with many traditional industries, the seafood business in Malaysia is seeing a rising wave of digital disruption. For its players, it is either sink or swim.
Those who seek to stay afloat must be ready for change. More importantly, there is a need to thoroughly understand the industry, including its traditional practices.
It remains to be seen if buying fish online will become mainstream, as it takes time for consumers to shift their mindsets.
Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Minister Sim Tze Tzin told CNA it was fascinating how fishery businesses are finding interesting ways of marketing themselves and their products.
He encouraged those in the industry to give online marketing a try. “The ministry wants to empower the fishermen and at the same time give the best deal to consumers. I’ll look at what we can do, probably give courses to young entrepreneurs – they are no longer just fishermen, they are entrepreneurs,” he said.
In the fishery industry, experience still matters, whether one chooses to adhere to traditional business models or not.
Mr Lim Yew Ping, co-owner of seafood e-retail platform Sea Fresh, pointed out that the most successful social media auctions are run by seasoned fishmongers, who know which seafood to combine together to make the lots most attractive to bidders.
Growing up, Mr Lim, 27, had ever only known the freshest seafood at Sasaran, Selangor, the fishing village where he lived.
His family has been in the fishery industry for four generations, expanding from a fish stall in a market to running a wholesale company. It was only when he got older that Mr Lim realised easy access to fresh seafood is a luxury that many do not have.
“Typically, the chain of supply goes from the fishermen, to the wholesale market, to the fishmongers at smaller markets or restaurants, then only to the end consumer,” he explained.
The long lag to reach customers compromises freshness, Mr Lim pointed out. Hence, he thought of shortening the line of supply, by connecting the catch directly to buyers through Internet retail.
The idea to start Sea Fresh came to him when he was working as a venture analyst in a startup accelerator in Kuala Lumpur.
Confident that he had a winning idea, Mr Lim quit his job and returned to the fishing village.
His sister, who just completed law studies, got involved as well. Together, they prepared a proposal for their first investor – their father.
They got rejected. “My dad didn’t even read the proposal!” Mr Lim recalled, chuckling.
Eventually, though, the father and the children reached a compromise.
“My dad said that we have to first learn and accept the traditional way before the industry can accept our new method and technology. So, we started with my father’s way – whatever he wanted, we followed – just to understand why the industry do things a certain way for the past 20 to 30 years,” Mr Lim explained.
When Sea Fresh opened for business in October 2017, the founders did everything from gutting the fishes to delivering orders, according to Ms Puah Lay Teng, a cousin of Mr Lim and the accountant for Sea Fresh.
Having immersed himself in industry realities, Mr Lim now understands why his father said no to his idea.
His initial model failed to account for how fast-paced the industry is. Once the fishes and seafood are netted from the sea, the deterioration clock begins its countdown.
To maintain freshness, fisheries are in a race against time to move their stock – a potential complication for online businesses that often grapple with delivery efficiency.
Merging industry conventions with tech-driven solutions has become the backbone of Sea Fresh’s business model.
His team works closely with the fishermen to collect their catch once they dock, and proceeds to scale, gut, clean, vacuum-pack and freeze them within two to three hours to prolong freshness.
Next, these packages are sent out to customers via a delivery truck that was custom-designed by the team to double as a mobile fish shop.
To bring in modern solutions for traditional industries, Mr Lim said young entrepreneurs need to invest time in learning about the trade.
“What we are doing is built upon an old industry. We can come up with new ideas for it, but the traditional ways remain a reality. Without understanding and working with the people already in the industry, there is no avenue for new innovation to come in,” said Mr Lim.
WORKING WITH INDUSTRY VETERANS
Indeed, online fishery businesses are unlikely to thrive, unless they can work well with seasoned fishermen.
Ms Audrey Goo, the daughter of a fishmonger from Pasir Penampang, Kuala Selangor, knows about getting along with industry old-hands. In 2016, she had started MyFishman, an online seafood delivery service.
Ms Goo noticed that Malaysians are partial to limited types of fishes, which creates pressure on fishermen to net these species. This in turn wreaks havoc on the marine ecosystem, she said, especially when overfishing has already caused yield to plunge in the area.
Hence, she introduced the FreshBox – fishermen would handpick the combination of fishes and seafood that goes into it according to the price of the box, which range from RM100 to RM300.
But first, Ms Goo needed help. She was not familiar with handling sea produce.
Ms Goo assumed that the fishermen can gut, clean and package the catch for her once they return from sea, so that they can be frozen right away to preserve the freshness. Some humoured her when they had the time, and others simply refused.
Like Mr Lim, Ms Goo had to dive into handling the seafood on her own. She learned two things. One, the potency of fishy smells (“I can’t get it off no matter how much I showered!”). Two, she needed to hire extra staff and get a processing site.
However, she still depends on the fishermen to pick the varieties in the FreshBox. This calls for some sweet-talking. “I would show the fishermen some WhatsApp messages I received from happy customers praising the selection in the boxes,” said the 37-year-old.
DOING AWAY WITH TRADITIONAL MIDDLEMEN?
With consumers turning to online purchases, how will the livelihoods of traditional middlemen be affected?
Mr Sim, the deputy minister noted that the modus operandi of online sellers can eliminate the many layers of middlemen.
When asked if the livelihoods of traditional middlemen will be affected going forward, he said he does not see the threat yet. There are still a lot of opportunities in the extensive network of fish markets nationwide, he said.
“The middlemen’s network is very extensive, from the big wholesale markets to the smallest stalls. This network is unlikely to be dismantled soon, but digital economy is presenting a huge challenge to them,” he said.
“They (the middlemen) know they cannot take consumers for a ride, and cannot continue to take that kind of huge profit because consumers have alternatives.”
Mr Sim added: “Digital marketing is challenging the status quo, although it is not replacing the traditional system immediately. We want the fishery market to be competitive, so the consumers can benefit. They have been eating expensive fishes for too long”.
Both Sea Fresh and MyFishman guarantee refunds if the orders are unsatisfactory. Is this enough to attract more consumers to buy seafood from online platforms?
Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Jafar Yusuf, who is chairman of the Selangor Fishermen Association doubts this trend will go mainstream anytime soon. Most Malaysians still prefer selecting their own fishes at wet markets, he said.
But MyFishman is seeing encouraging results. “For the past three months, we’ve stopped running advertisements, but we saw up to 70 per cent of returning customers,” said Ms Goo.
Two customers, housewife Mrs Loo and finance manager Ms Chrys Leoi said they have been ordering online from MyFishman for about two years, but are hesitant to try other platforms.
They have confidence in Ms Goo because they know her personally.
Familiarity, it seems, is still the currency for trust – which may explain why people often buy from the same fishmonger.
Changing minds is a slow process, but Ms Goo is seeing some success.
After all, her father, once a naysayer to her online business, is now encouraging customers at his fish stall to order from MyFishman. Perhaps the fishmonger knows better than to ignore a coming tide.