KUALA LUMPUR, May 19 — It’s not quite Tsukiji Market — that iconic fish market in Tokyo where fish is auctioned in the early hours of the morning — but it’s a fish auction anybody with access to Facebook can participate in.
Small fishing companies in Malaysia have turned to digital technology to keep up with the growing demand of a new generation who prefer having their fish packaged and sent to their homes and pay less than they would if they went to a real market.
One such company is MyFishMan, based in Klang, whose co-founder 37-year-old Audrey Goo began operating three years ago.
Her company recently started to conduct fish auctions with partner DD Fishery Live — via Facebook Live — which she said they learned how to do through trial and error.
Viewers watch the livestream of the seller displaying the fish, and if they are interested in purchasing, they can contact the seller via a WhatsApp number displayed.
“Our auctions run from 8pm to midnight, five days a week. At best, we can expect to auction up to 300kg of fish daily,” she told Malay Mail.
Viewership at each session can be between 200 and 1,000 with the bulk of the Facebook Live audience made up of parents or busy mothers who do not have time to go to the market.
“Since we began auctioning over a year ago, our profits have increased by 10 to 50 per cent on average. With our viewers coming from all over the country, we have delivered as far as Kuantan, Penang and Johor Baru,” she said.
However, this widening of their customer base brings with it its own set of challenges.
“Transportation is actually a bigger problem, since a good portion of our viewers are from outside Selangor.
“In a way, one can say this bypasses the middleman as the fish goes directly to the end consumer. But to be fair, many of those conducting Facebook Live auctions are themselves middlemen,” she said.
Prices can be lower by 10 to 30 per cent, depending on the type of fish, so consumers find it a great bargain. Also, the fish is delivered right to your doorstep.
Goo said several fishermen have also expressed interest in the new channel, and added she is willing to teach them how to use Facebook Live to get more customers.
“They are not as many compared to middlemen who do auctions on Facebook. But if the fishermen are part of the younger generation, then we can teach them how to set up, record and pack, among others.
“This is especially since most of our auction viewers are within the 30s and 40s age range. Of course, we still cater to physical customers who tend to be middle-aged women in their 50s and above,” she said.
Most important to Goo is the ability to reduce wastage, since most of her fish suppliers hail from various places including Port Klang and Sekinchan.
“Auctioning also allows us to sell spare parts including the fish heads and tails in the package, which people tend to use to make soup. We also throw in stuff like homemade cooking sauces and condiments.
“Currently, our customer base is Chinese, but we are planning to open up a special section for Malay customers due to requests from several customers in Kelantan,” she said.
MyFishMan plans to partner with several sauce-manufacturing companies in Kelantan, who will also provide assistance when conducting auctions.
“I am not sure if the Malay customer base will increase, as it is still very new for us. But I am going to stay confident all the same,” Goo said.
Lim Yew Ping, the co-founder of another wholesaler — Sea Fresh — said despite the increased interest in fishermen looking to sell their catch directly to consumers, he does not foresee the numbers increasing greatly.
“Customarily fishermen spend an average of eight hours at sea. This means they are quite exhausted when they get back; hence, the prominent role of middlemen,” he said at his office in Kuala Selangor.
The 27-year-old, who runs the company with his sister and a cousin, is probably one of the earliest users of Facebook Live to auction fish, which he began doing in January last year around the same time he established his company.
“At the time, it was only me and my sister, and we got the idea from Taiwan where it is quite a big trend. It was a learning process as we did not know we had to prepare so many things.
“At that testing stage, many customers indicated they wanted fish as fresh as possible, instead of merely packaging it. And then in July or so last year, suddenly everyone started doing Facebook Live auctions,” Lim said.
This piqued the interest of the fishermen themselves, but many are still staying away as they want to observe if this will work out or not in the long run.
Despite having to discontinue the Facebook Live auctions for a time after Chinese New Year due to a lack of manpower, Lim said he has learned much during the process.
“We learned that customers prioritise the freshness of the fish, the convenience and not having to enter a wet market to purchase it.
“Interestingly, most of our viewers and customers during the auctions tend to be working-class men in their 30s and 40s. I think they also view it because they find it entertaining to engage with the seller,” he said with a laugh.
Although digital technology has enabled Sea Fresh to reach out to customers interested in buying seafood yet cannot physically make it to do so themselves, Lim said the main challenge is still the customers’ buying behaviour.
“An example is seasoned housewives who like to haggle for the price and insist on physically touching the fish when buying.
“Hence, the reason why we have a frozen food truck for residents in Kuala Selangor and other places to cater to them since they make up the majority of our clients,” he said.
Despite his belief that the number of fishermen engaging in direct sales will not be significant due to the time-consuming aspect of their profession, Lim said digital technology will still work in favour of the end consumer.
“Traditionally, the fishing industry has five tiers: The fishermen to large wholesalers, then small wholesalers, then markets, and finally customers.
“Increased digitalisation means it is quite possible to reduce this to just two tiers. From my experience, customers can get prices 30 per cent cheaper,” he said, adding this is also subject to the fish type, its availability and freshness.
Lim said he expects a genuine need for such services to expand in the coming years, where fish and seafood are packaged nicely and delivered right at the doorstep.
“With any luck, time, and initiative, this phenomenon may one day resemble the same kind of service provided by the Alibaba Group,” he said.