When demand for its clothes grew shortly after opening in 2010, tailoring chain Marcella struggled to cope. Delivery time stretched to four weeks and workmanship suffered, with items needing repeated alterations.
"We faced a huge shortage of skilled people," said co-owner Firas Alsuwaigh, a 26-year-old National University of Singapore law graduate. "Something had to be done."
The firm turned to technology. Now a customer's body measurements are mapped onto a digital profile and sent to laser cutters in China. Clothes are ready in two weeks, and the chain needs a total of just six full-time employees in its six branches - half of what would have been needed otherwise. But prices remain the same.
Marcella was hailed by Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck on Tuesday as an example of a retailer which used technology to its advantage.
Speaking at the launch of the three-day Singapore Retail Industry Conference at Suntec City Convention Centre, he urged retailers to "rise to the occasion" amid Singapore's labour crunch, and invest in productivity, people and technology.
"Retailers can better understand and respond to the needs of customers and develop innovative concepts which will give you an edge over your competitors."
He said that since 2011, more than 250 retailers have tapped government initiatives to increase productivity, while more than 300 retail bosses and productivity managers have been trained through learning trips, projects and workshops.
Labour productivity in the retail sector has been growing at 3 to 4 per cent every year between 2009 and 2012.
The event was jointly organised by the Singapore Retailers Association (SRA) and government agency Spring Singapore.
Speaking on the conference's sidelines, SRA president Jannie Chan said that retailers are at least 10 per cent short of staff, and are also facing rising rents.
She explained that rent and manpower costs typically make up about 75 per cent of a retailer's operating costs.
"It's very tough but we will find a way. Hopefully we can get more people to join the retail industry," she said, adding that the SRA has joined Spring's SME Talent Programme.
The programme, which has six other associations on board since its launch in June, hopes to attract polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education students to work in small and medium-sized enterprises through study awards and job opportunities.
So far, 200 applications have been received.