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GrowSari CMO Maimai Punzalan on modernizing sari-sari stores and empowering owners both in physical and digital spaces

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — The marketing field is a cutthroat industry that requires constant growth and learning. While new technologies and innovations are developed, more novel ways to communicate and persuade are demanded. This is something that Maimai Punzalan knows quite well, with a career spanning over 20 years in commercial FMCG, holding roles across Asia with some of the biggest multinationals in the world, such as J&J and P&G. Currently, she is the Chief Marketing Officer at GrowSari, a B2B platform that champions sari-sari store owners in the Philippines to take on the digital space through education, empowerment, and elevation.

In this exclusive interview with adobo Magazine, Maimai shared her story of growth as she followed her personal advocacy from corporate to a whole new playing field and the insights learned along the way.

Outside going in

Before joining GrowSari, Maimai‘s career followed the expected route of a successful marketer: join as brand manager of a household brand, rise up the corporate ladder and assume a regional, then global role, and continue to launch and grow brands from one FMCG corporation to another. 


For Maimai, this started at Procter & Gamble, where her last role was Senior Director for Global of the Always brand franchise, heading the Asia Hub. Then, she joined Johnson & Johnson, where she stayed as Country Head of Marketing/CMO for J&J Philippines and Regional Director of Southeast Asia for Baby Care for four years, up until the pandemic.

These multinationals, with their super brands that are distributed to more than 10 markets each, are industry pillars — both in the way that they are dream companies for many marketing graduates and also leaders in their brands’ respective categories. Despite this glowing portfolio, however, Maimai felt a push towards something different during the pandemic. Something that, in her words, “drives more impact when everyone was struggling and businesses were closing.” 

She shared, “I left the corporate world at the height of my career and the height of the pandemic. Some may say that wasn’t very wise of me, but I felt a calling to do something that would drive more impact. I was completely aligned with GrowSari’s purpose to help MSME retailers survive and thrive with digital solutions.” 

Her personal advocacy fueled this sudden push to use her talents to help and improve the lives of those who need it most. In working for this new platform, which was only four years old at the time, she believes that she’s able to fulfill this calling in a very meaningful way by empowering sari-sari store owners — most of whom are women and housewives — who are now carrying the burden of uplifting the lives of their children with a small street store.  

Sari-sari stores are residential street staples in the Philippines. The Tagalog word sari-sari directly translates to “variety” as it distributes a catalogue of basic necessities, and then some: Snacks, drinks, toiletries, condiments, and the like. Traditionally, they are storefronts attached to a neighborhood house, with just a window where the buyer and seller transact. Low-to-medium-income families often own these stores in areas where bigger commercial establishments like convenience stores and groceries are too far and often too pricey. 

“As a marketer, my objective was always to drive Market Share and Household Penetration for my brands. This meant I needed to drive distribution in the country’s deepest and widest retail network — the sari-sari stores. I have spent a lot of time insighting and working with sari-sari store owners. I needed to understand their psyche, what made them choose to carry one brand over the other,” she recalled. 

Maimai furthered, “In doing a lot of insighting with them, I also realized how much power and influence these store owners have in the local communities. They are the informal community leaders, given how dependent Filipino households are on them for all their basic needs. This role got especially elevated during the pandemic. I have always wondered — if sari-sari stores took care of the community, who took care of the sari-sari store owners?” 

GrowSari: educate, empower, elevate

GrowSari is a B2B ecommerce platform, initially launched as an ordering platform specifically for sari-sari stores as a first step to getting the traditional brick-and-mortar store in the digital space. Today, on top of providing affordable and on-demand inventory and working capital credit lines, the platform also houses microservices that are essential to making the lives of store owners easier, such as telco load, bill payment, ecommerce, wifi connection, and other eservices. With one digital wallet, sari-sari store owners can easily access the services they need to integrate their online and offline operations fully. Moreover, GrowSari also generates data and insights to share with their partners: the store owners, manufacturers, and distributors. 

This commitment to serving the sari-sari store community answered Maimai’s question. She found who was taking care of these small business owners and made the switch. 

Typically, mothers and housewives manage sari-sari stores while their children are off to school and husbands are out working, without formal training in entrepreneurship or store management. Maimai shared, “Majority of sari-sari store owners are women, who started the business on the side to supplement their husband’s wages. They were never formally trained to run a business. They basically extended their own household pantries with the small savings that they tucked away.”

She went on, “Unless they are a big distributor-covered store, they would often fend for themselves to get access to their product assortment (i.e., close up shop, spend on transportation, and buy in the nearest supermarket/wholesaler, where they are already buying the goods at a premium). In effect, the margins for which they run their business are very small. Without access to capital, the chances of growing their business would be slim.” 

GrowSari’s goal of empowering sari-sari store owners through digital means is no easy feat, especially as many of these audiences are based in areas where digital literacy is low due to a lack of access and resources. Thus, its focus on education is the first step in its mission — and a big reason for its success. 

“I love the fact that in GrowSari, beyond giving sari-sari store owners access to affordable physical and digital goods, I am also teaching these MSMEs to be business savvy, how to manage their money, how to use credit, and how to maximize their profits. I love that I am helping modernize and digitize how retail is conducted across the country, allowing wealth to be better distributed in the community,” Maimai highlighted. 

Maimai and her team also focused their efforts on teaching older and less educated owners about digital: app ordering, ecommerce, digital payments, and the rest of GrowSari’s extensive services. This is an added obstacle on top of data/internet penetration in more rural areas in the country, and the general discomfort and distrust owners have with something that’s not the traditional storefront transaction. 

“Marketing business-to-businesses versus to-end consumers is tougher in many ways. First, you will have to get extremely targeted in your approach. They are a lot fewer in number than consumers/end users, so you need to know how to reach them, design a product that addresses specific needs (but is still scaleable), and engage with them in almost a one-to-one manner. This is where having a digital platform helps drive targeted communications and activations, leveraging first party data and analytics,” Maimai explained.

She continued, “Second, they are a lot more demanding in terms of customer experience and fit for their needs, as their livelihood is at stake. Their expectations are higher that the product/ service delivers its promise, and they will hold you to it, expecting good customer service should there be any problems. So when marketing to them, you need to ensure clarity in your communication, and a two-way loop is established for any questions and concerns.” 

Essentially, sari-sari store owners are MSME owners operating on a smaller platform but a much more intimate audience base. By empowering them with the education and tools to scale up — or, at the very least, make their workflows more efficient — they can grow their livelihoods and provide for their families even more. 

All this points to Maimai’s pride in the work GrowSari does, with a customer journey that goes beyond mere business: Education to empowerment, and eventual elevation of communities. 

Eyes on sari-sari store owners

Culturally, sari-sari stores signify a lot for the Filipino people. It’s a neighborhood store for quick fixes, a casual space for friendly meet-ups,  and the center of the neighborhood’s latest news. It’s been a staple in residential areas for decades, with very populated villages even having more than one within their gates. 

“Sari-sari store owners make very good influencers,” Maimai noted. “They are a good source of awareness for consumers on the latest products as they would have researched the best products available. They also are credible as they would be able to play back the usage experience feedback [directly] from their consumers.” 

With such a role in Philippine society, it’s vital that sari-sari store owners have the support they need to continue operations and evolve with the changing times. In the same way, it’s also crucial that market players know their importance in local distribution and promotion. Maimai and GrowSari are advocates of this in pursuit of their purpose of uplifting the lives of sari-sari store owners. 

“We made sure that whatever we did would truly make an impact on making their lives better and growing their business. It wasn’t about easy wins. We made sure everything we set out to do will be impactful and sustainable, even if that means multiple pivots along the way,” she explained. 

Ultimately, Maimai believes she would have done well as Chief Marketing Officer once true digital adoption was achieved in their market. She shared, “We have designed the app to be easy to use, adaptable in lower phone models, and have built-in educational nudges to help users along the way. I would have achieved my role as Chief Marketing Officer if I not only built the strong brand equity of Growsari but somehow instilled confidence in all sari-sari store owners that, yes, they too can adapt to the Digital world!”

With four years in the game, Maimai is still passionate about this mission and hopes to create more impact within the sari-sari store community. Adobo Magazine is eager to follow her story in the coming years and see sari-sari stores grow more in the digital space, further solidifying their place in the Philippine marketing landscape. 

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