Unless you live under a rock with no Internet connection, chances are that you own something that you bought online at some time or other.
For many, it starts with Amazon, where one can find practically anything under the sun for less than what you’d pay in a shop.
The more adventurous would eventually move to Taobao – Mainland China’s answer to Amazon – where one new homeowner made the news after decorating her new flat with furniture shipped to her doorstep for just S$2.99.
The sheer convenience of checking out with just a few clicks – anytime and anywhere – is one of the reasons tech-savvy millennials especially are snubbing Orchard Road and cookie-cutter malls for online merchants.
But brick-and-mortar retailers are not giving up the fight, with some even embracing the competition online and accepting it as the future of shopping.
Homegrown fashion and lifestyle retailer FJ Benjamin – which distributes over 20 international brands like Guess, Marc Jacobs, Nautica and Swarovski; and operates a network of over 200 stores and 1,500 points of sale in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – announced last week that it is setting up an advisory board to help the company synergise its physical and online sales channels.
“We have observed the online ecosystem evolve rapidly over the past two years, including last mile logistics, payments and mobile commerce, and feel that the time is now ripe to pursue an economically viable business model that will integrate the online ecosystem with our retail infrastructure,” says FJ Benjamin director of corporate strategy Ben Benjamin.
Patrina Tan, OUE’s senior vice-president for retail, marketing and leasing, also notes that shopping habits have changed vastly over the last decade.
OUE manages Mandarin Gallery on Orchard Road and opened Downtown Gallery in the heart of Shenton Way last year. Both have a carefully curated tenant-mix that caters to the targeted audience in their respective locations: the former is positioned as “a sanctuary amidst (Orchard Road)” while the latter has a “health-style” concept which combines work and play for the CBD working crowd. “For instance, brand discovery often starts online – whether it’s from an online publication or an Instagram post by an influencer you follow,” Ms Tan explains. “The most successful retailers are the ones who have managed to be in the right online and offline spaces where their target audiences spend their time in.”
She adds it is also the responsibility of physical store merchants and mall owners to reimagine the retail concept and the use of space to deliver more experiences and attractions that consumers cannot find online.
To that end, shopping experiences are continually being refined and re-defined by mall operators and merchants. The luxury sector, in particular, is going all out to spoil customers with an in-store experience that is near-impossible to replicate without stepping out of your house.
Take Henry Jacques, for instance: the French haute parfumerie searched for a suitable location for two years before opening its first standalone boutique outside Paris at Marina Bay Sands earlier this year.
Known for its luxurious bespoke fragrances, the family-owned brand’s only physical retail presence previously was a by-appointment-only salon in Paris and a space at Harrods in London.
Asked why Henry Jacques is going the brick-and-mortar route, its CEO Anne Lise Cremona says a boutique is essential to the way the company sits down with its customers – often for hours – to design the perfect bespoke fragrances for them.
“(A boutique) allows us to remain in full control of the quality of our relationship with our clients,” says Ms Cremona, who took over as CEO from her father Henry Jacques Cremona in 2011. “Today’s distribution circuits in perfumery go against all our codes. It is too fast, too impersonal and scales involved are incompatible with our production methods.”
The 450 sq ft Singapore store is even modelled after a classic Parisian apartment and was reconstructed from vintage solid oak that was vacuum packed and sent from France before being reassembled here to showcase the brand’s exclusivity and exquisite detail to craftsmanship. Prices start from S$770 for an off-the-shelf 15ml bottle, while a bespoke scent costs upwards of a whopping S$46,000, inclusive of a customised bottle.
Stores also play a role in redefining spaces. Homegrown multi-label boutique Surrender prides itself on creating a luxury streetwear hub on the ground floor of 268 Orchard Road for the local hypebeast community to congregate.
The shop is flanked by the boutiques of two other popular cult fashion brands Off-White and Christian Dada. Both are owned and managed by Surrender, which stocks hyped labels like Uncover, Sankuanz, Wtaps, Neighborhood and more.
For over a decade now, Surrender itself has been key in curating and introducing fashion-forward brands to Singapore and shaping the luxury streetwear scene here. Its executive director Bryan Tan feels having a physical presence reinforces Surrender’s strong branding.
“At Surrender, we offer a unique retail experience that stimulates the senses of being, with a concept that embraces and encompasses not just fashion and retail, but space, music and art,” he says. ” We live in such a digital world, but a brick-and-mortar store allows us to appeal to the senses and play with visual stimulation, textures, touch, scents and sounds. Having this physical space (enables us to) keep it interactive and social with our customers.”
In fact, stores emphasise the importance of customer service more than ever now as they face stiffer competition from online.
The employees at the Singapore outpost of Japanese department store Lumine undergo training once a week to learn to interact with not only walk-in customers but also those who make enquiries online.
Staff also appear in social media posts modelling the clothes Lumine Singapore carries to raise their profiles, as well as to stress the company’s efforts in pushing the visibility of its frontline workers.
“We spend a lot of time and money on customer service training because shopping in a physical retail space and online are two totally different experiences: on a website, customers already know what product they want but when they walk into a store, they are also (buying into the knowledge) of our sales assistants,” says Lumine Singapore’s managing director Naokazu Kozakai.
He adds, “We have had customers who told us they ended up buying items in a colour which they usually won’t consider but were convinced by the recommendations of our sales assistants.”
A household name in Japan, Lumine opened its first overseas store at The Central along Clarke Quay late last year despite the challenging retail climate and other Japanese brands like Lowrys Farm and Parco withdrawing their operations from Harbourfront and Millennial Walk respectively in recent years.
The company, however, is confident it is in a position to offer Singapore shoppers a unique shopping experience; one that is curated and crafted from the fusion of local and Japanese cultures, shares Mr Kozakai.
Although Lumine’s e-commerce business is growing quickly in Japan, there is no rush to introduce it yet in Singapore, he adds.
Likewise, Mr Tan says one of the reasons Surrender does not have an online store on its website is because it still wants to drive traffic to the boutiques, which often host events where customers get to meet the designers of the items they are buying.
The company is even taking a “back to the basics” approach by focusing on expanding its retail business regionally to Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, while setting its sights also on Hong Kong and China.
Ms Cremona doesn’t rule out the possibility of a Henry Jacques online store and is “carefully studying” the option. “There are many points to consider and we will never compromise on our codes and philosophy,” she says. “If we bring some of our collections online, it would be through a very special service (where we can still) preserve the special attention we are able to give to our clients in the boutiques; (and) once again innovate and ultimately elevate the current state of things in perfumery.”
But the future of retail could well be one where both online and brick-and-mortar work hand-in-hand instead of one trying to cancel the other out.
Amazon opened its first cashier- and cash-less store Amazon Go in Seattle earlier this year to the public, heralding a new era in shopping. Customers pick whatever they want from the shelves and are then billed to their online accounts.
In Singapore, it is now common to find online store owners testing the waters with pop-up stores as a form of expanding.
Two homegrown start-ups, Naiise and Hipvan, have also ventured into starting their own physical outlets.
“The ‘digital vs. traditional’ tug-of-war isn’t a war of two evils, it’s a fundamental difference in inherent values… traditional and digital technology must merge as neither can operate on their own anymore,” states OUE’s Ms Tan.
She adds, “The model, moving forward, is a hybrid one: where retailers have a strong online presence, but use the stores to drive the brand equity and experience – it’s almost a reversal of roles – in the past, it was the online experience that built the brand equity and the sale was typically closed in-store.”