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Sonata

CNA
mediacorp brandSTUDiO

Text Francis Kan

Photography Joseph Nair

Sonata Dancewear’s embrace of digitalisation has fuelled the growth of this 37-year-old family-owned business

There’s much to be said for tried-and-trusted methods of doing business, but in the case of dancewear manufacturer and retailer Sonata Dancewear, traditional methods of working were limiting opportunities for its growth.

The company was started in 1982, when Mr Tai Han Kwang and his wife, Ms Ong Long, decided to indulge their passion for dance by establishing a dancewear manufacturing and retailing business. Ms Ong wanted to make affordable dancewear for budding ballerinas and set about designing her own line of dancewear.

In the decades since, Sonata Dancewear has grown to become one of the leading dancewear distributors in the region. Today, Ms Bridget Tai has taken over the reins from her parents.

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Ms Po Xin Yi (left), Ms Bridget Tai (centre) and Ms Mellissa Wong have been spearheading digitisation efforts at Sonata Dancewear.

GROWING PAINS

In 2013, the company started distributing to more countries as it had been appointed the official dancewear of The Commonwealth Society of Teachers of Dancing. While this was a prime opportunity to expand the business, the manual tracking of orders soon turned this blessing into a burden.

For Ms Tai, general manager at Sonata Dancewear, the need to turn things around had great personal meaning. The 30-year-old started working there as a teen, initially on weekends, learning the ropes from her parents.

“Before we digitalised our operations, we were just like a traditional mom-and-pop store. We had a single cash register in the shop. There was no way for us to tell how many pieces of a certain design or colour were sold on a particular day as there just wasn’t any data. We couldn’t do any analysis whatsoever,” said Ms Tai.

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Orders for Sonata Dancewear’s range of stock and made-to-order attire can now be made online, offering customers greater convenience.

Taking orders was another tedious task, as this involved staff extracting information gathered from emails and phone calls, and transferring them onto physical forms.

“We would manually write orders down and photocopy them before passing them on to our factory for processing. The amount of paperwork to be done, and filed, made the entire process of order-taking messy and disorganised,” she said.

“The team was also very small back then. We had to do everything ourselves, from taking orders and packing orders to checking the quality of the garments and arranging for delivery. Moreover, all these had to be done manually. Hence, there was a high tendency for human errors to occur.”

Ms Po Xin Yi, senior sales and operations manager at Sonata Dancewear, agreed: “Those days were really challenging. Sometimes, we would spend hours consolidating all the handwritten documents while trying to decipher our customers’ and colleagues’ handwriting. A lot of time was wasted.”

ENCOUNTERING OBSTACLES TO GROWTH

The time spent performing these manual tasks began affecting the business in other ways.

“We would spend a lot more time trying to rectify errors instead of working on other tasks that could help the business grow,” said Ms Mellissa Wong, human resource (HR) and finance manager at Sonata Dancewear.

On the HR front, Ms Wong would also be bogged down by paperwork as staff applied for leave on forms that they submitted in person. “Sometimes to apply for one day of leave, the process could take up to a week, which didn’t make sense.”

DELVING INTO DIGITAL DETAILS

With branches in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, the company realised that it would need real-time data to improve its decision-making and operational processes. Sonata Dancewear adopted several digital solutions, such as a point-of-sale (POS) system, an HR system and an accounting software.

The POS system was introduced in all of its retail stores to provide a more accurate record of sales transactions. This information helps the company know which items are selling well. Prior to this, it used cash registers, which did not allow it to track what was being sold.

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The company’s POS system gives staff a clearer idea of which items are selling well.

“As we grew, we realised that we needed proper retail technology, such as a POS system,” said Ms Tai.

Adopting the solutions has transformed the company, and the roles that different staff play. For instance, the solutions have helped Ms Wong to be better able to train new colleagues. Jobs are now well recorded, easily tracked and managed – and this enables her to generate reports and analysis for review and planning.

Said Ms Wong: “With the implementation of the HR software, employees can easily log into the HR portal from their computers or mobile devices. They can view company updates, apply for leave, track leave records and download e-payslips.”

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Digitalisation has enabled Sonata Dancewear to better manage its inventory.

It is also easier for managers to access team records now. “Previously, employees had to request for information directly from the HR department, and HR had to constantly track and update records manually,” Ms Wong added.

The digitalisation drive has also benefitted customers, who can now submit their orders through an online form on the company’s website. A piece of attire can be customised online with options such as colour and type of material. In the past, when orders were taken manually, it sometimes led to discrepancies.

Said Ms Po: “Everything is clear, accurate and straight to the point now with a digital system in place. We just need to forward the e-orders to our suppliers and they can take care of the necessary productions. At the same time, our customers are able to track their deliveries. This really helps to give peace of mind to all parties involved.”

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Customer insights help Sonata Dancewear craft better promotions and membership programmes.

Ms Tai added: “Customers sometimes want to know how much they have spent with us over the year, or the status of their outstanding orders. With a click of a button, I can now give them that information.” On top of that, the company’s POS system has allowed it to gather useful customer insights that help it craft better promotions and membership programmes.

Having financial data captured by its accounting system also facilitates better decision-making, said Ms Wong.

“We know the more popular materials among our customers to invest in and what not to invest in. It saves us so much resources and time,” she said.

“The data also really helps us to decide whether we are ready to bring our business to the next stage. We are looking to further our overseas reach, so by analysing the data, we are more aware of our financial readiness.”

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Ms Wong is no longer bogged down by paperwork with the implementation of the HR software.

CHANGING FROM WITHIN TO BETTER SERVE CUSTOMERS

For Sonata Dancewear, the benefits of digitalisation have been manifold. Various tasks that were previously done manually have now been automated. This has enabled the company to save on both time and costs, allowing staff to focus on higher value-added activities.

More accurate and timely data-driven insights have also empowered the company to make informed decisions for growing sales, which, in turn, has facilitated international expansion.

Most importantly, the company’s digitalisation drive has enabled it to take better care of customers. Said Ms Tai: “When everything is more organised from within, with better efficiency and accuracy, we can focus on our customers’ needs. It has definitely brought convenience to all of us and, in return, satisfaction to our customers,” she said.

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