In June, watch enthusiast Jimmy Law was casually looking up a Rado watch created in collaboration with the Japanese design duo, YOY. While reading about the model at the Swiss watch brand’s homepage, it surprised him to see that there was an option to complete the purchase on the e-commerce platform Lazada.
Law, whose collection includes brands such as Omega and Cartier, says, “It was unexpected because I usually associate Lazada with consumer products and more mainstream offerings, rather than luxury goods.”
It’s a perception these platforms are looking to change. While they remain best known for offering a staggering range of affordably priced goods, e-commerce platforms such as Lazada, Shopee and Zalora have been investing heavily in their luxury categories – and many shoppers, here and in other parts of South-east Asia, have been responding to their enticing overtures.
THE POPULARITY OF PREMIUM
Having entered the luxury segment in 2018, Zalora, owned by Global Fashion Group, launched a full-scale luxury segment last September across its Asian markets. It includes accessories by higher-end brands, including Gucci and Balenciaga, along with mid-tier labels like Coach and Tory Burch. “Since its launch in Singapore, there has been an increase of over 70 per cent in the number of luxury customers year on year,” says Zalora’s buying director Eric Cheang.
Around the same time last September, Sea Group’s e-commerce platform Shopee also launched Shopee Premium. It has 60 brands across its beauty, fashion and lifestyle categories, including Korean skincare brand Sulwhasoo and fashion label MCM. Shopee Premium is available in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Shopee regional MD Ian Ho shares, “We saw a significant increase in searches for premium brands from 2019 to 2020, showing that shoppers were looking for a more premium assortment at Shopee. Our premium brands recorded the fastest growth, significantly outpacing the growth of other brands on Shopee Mall.”
In Singapore, Alibaba-backed Lazada Group’s LazMall Prestige “is only just getting started, and we are confident of its future growth,” says James Chang, the group’s head of Strategic Accounts and Retail. The group soft-launched LazMall Prestige in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand at the end of last year and recently expanded it to Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in the region. LazMall Prestige features over 50 brands across different categories, including Bang & Olufsen, Longines, Shanghai Tang, Smeg and La Mer, as well as local premium labels such as Azimuth Watch and Colony Clothing.
To differentiate their high-end categories from the rest of their offerings, these platforms have a separate portal for the former. The luxury portals feature a cleaner aesthetic, and the platforms work with individual brands to create a specific look and feel with dedicated content. Shopee Premium, for instance, has “Brand Spotlight” pages. Says Ho, “These pages allow brands to customise brand elements and content, showcasing featured collections or editor’s picks, as well as illustrating their heritage through long- form articles and stylised photography and images.”
A SHOT IN THE ARM
It’s no coincidence that the platforms’ inroads into new, higher-priced realms gained traction in the middle of the pandemic. During last year’s circuit breaker, retail stores here had to close for a month. Even when brick-and- mortar stores remained open, the drop in foot traffic severely impacted business. These disruptions drove home the importance of having multiple sales channels. E-commerce, which had long been an afterthought for luxury brands that traditionally focused on the in-store experience, took centre stage.
Earlier this year, Agility Research & Strategy surveyed more than 800 millionaires across six Asian markets including Singapore, and found that 47 per cent of respondents here expected their online spending to increase over the next 12 months. Agility MD Amrita Banta notes, “In Singapore, we do not have a strong culture of online shopping because the stores are in such close proximity to us, and going to the mall is part of our culture. That said, the pandemic has really accelerated the move to online.”
Since last year, many high-end brands have stepped up their omnichannel sales capabilities. Several initiated e-commerce on their websites. To maintain a personal touch, sales assistants also reached out to regular clients through WhatsApp, sending images of new products and delivering purchases in person. A handful of luxury watch brands even launched virtual boutiques with a more experiential browsing and buying experience.
For brands that have not been able to build their digital sales capabilities quickly enough, partnering with large e-commerce platforms has been one option. Says Ho, “The pandemic sped up Shopee Premium’s introduction. It pushed premium and luxury brands that were impacted by the closure of retail stores, online. They knew that having an omnichannel presence was crucial to offset the negative growth in retail, given the prolonged nature of a pandemic. Turning to e-commerce platforms like Shopee provided a quick avenue to activate operations and continue to serve their customers while allowing them to expand their reach in the region’s booming digital economy.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE
Even though Hong Kong luxury fashion and lifestyle brand Shanghai Tang has had its global e-commerce website since 2002, its Singapore arm partnered with LazMall Prestige at the beginning of this year.
Like LazMall Prestige’s other brands, Shanghai Tang directly operates its store on the platform. While its own global e-commerce website and its store on LazMall Prestige carry similar products –the brand’s subtly Asian-influenced clothing and homeware – the latter offers a few exclusive items that are not available on its website, such as its signature Ginger Flower room spray.
Says Maggie Wong, its head of marketing, “On top of our official website, which caters to global customers, we identified a need for a local marketplace platform to target young local customers. Lazada has helped us to extend our exposure to local audiences, and to fulfil their orders more quickly. This creates a better online shopping experience for our customers.”
Eyewear giant Luxottica, which was among the first companies to join Shopee Premium last year with its proprietary brand Ray-Ban, has had a positive response. A spokesperson noted that the average spend of each of its customers on the platform has increased over time.
While the e-commerce platforms report growing numbers of new customers for their pricier offerings, many premium buyers are also existing customers. Long- time Zalora customer Karisa Sukamto (full disclosure – the former brand marketer has worked with Zalora) shares that she used to shop its private-label or high-street fashion brands, but recently bought a CK Calvin Klein top and Furla scarf from its Luxury segment. She says, “Over the years, I have seen how their categories have expanded. This got me interested in shopping for their more luxe offerings.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
For some premium-brand owners, being on these platforms lets them experiment with new sales channels without the heavy financial outlay of doing it themselves. Local fine-watch brand Azimuth, whose retail prices range from $2,000 to $120,000, joined LazMall in March. Aside from being stocked in various brick-and- mortar shops here and overseas, the brand also sells directly to customers who get in touch via e-mail or Instagram.
Working with LazMall Prestige has allowed Azimuth co-founder Chris Long to test the viability of e-commerce. He shares, “We don’t see a need to do our own e-commerce at the moment, and being on other platforms allows us to gauge response.” While its fellow LazMall Prestige retailers such as Colony Clothing say that response has been positive, Azimuth has yet to sell any of its watches through the platform. Long believes that this reflects the luxury-shopping culture in Singapore.
He notes, “We have sold tourbillon watches costing five digits through e-commerce stores in the US. But consumer behaviour there is quite different. I think Singaporeans are still not ready to purchase high-value items that are readily available in physical stores.”
Agility Research’s Banta echoes this opinion. She believes that there are limitations to the high-end products people would purchase on mainstream e-commerce platforms in Singapore. “In large countries like China or Indonesia, brands have to get on the third-party bandwagon to increase their reach, especially in cities where certain luxury brands might not have a presence,” she notes. “In Singapore, it’s still early days. For higher-end products, I think people would buy wine, skincare and small fashion items such as bags and sunglasses online, but they would still prefer going to the stores for very expensive items.”
In the end, watch enthusiast Jimmy Law did not buy the watch he had been checking out online – he still prefers to try on a relatively pricey timepiece before committing to it. However, he shares that if he was looking for a model he was already familiar with and if it was inconvenient to get to a store, he would not rule out purchasing that watch on a third-party platform. “Especially if it’s a watch that’s hard to find elsewhere, why not?”