More Singapore firms riding the online shopping wave

Online marketplaces are becoming an increasingly popular option for Singapore retailers looking to ramp up their e-commerce presence.

These sites, which include Amazon, Lazada, Qoo10 and Tmall, provide a low-cost way to reach new customers and expand globally, companies say.

9 Degrees Freedom, which makes tennis performance sensor Qlipp, lists its products on Amazon and online electronics retailer Newegg in order to reach customers in the United States.

"We knew from the start that the majority of our market is not in Singapore," said chief executive Donny Soh, who developed the technology for Qlipp while he was a scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). He left in 2013 and now markets Qlipp with his business partner Cen Lee through 9 Degrees Freedom. "We were focused on getting exposure and marketing overseas from the start," added Dr Soh.

Qlipp is a small gadget that can be attached to the strings of a tennis racket. It records data such as stroke type, swing speed and ball spin to give players a better idea of their game.

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The company is focusing on the US, Canada and European markets. More than 80 per cent of its sales come from outside Singapore, Dr Soh said, noting that the firm takes a different sales approach in each market.

While consumers in the US are comfortable comparing prices and products in online marketplaces, in Canada and Europe, Qlipp is sold in bricks-and-mortar stores by retailers and distributors. 

"It is challenging for a young brand like us to market directly to consumers," said Dr Soh.

"We still don't have much brand equity and trust, so we have to depend on larger distributors to help us build a brand."

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The company reported $300,000 in revenue last year - double that in 2015 - and hopes to double that again this year on the back of distribution opportunities in Europe.

Motherswork - a one-stop shop for mothers and children - is another local company looking to make use of online marketplaces to grow.

Chief executive Sharon Wong, who started the business almost 20 years ago when she first became a mother, said the company did not rush into e-commerce "because people tend to expect a discount for products they buy online".

"We registered our own website but more for PR and marketing; it wasn't our core business. We continued to grow our stores and opened in China in 2012," she added.

Motherswork has four stores in Singapore and eight in China.

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The retail slowdown last year prompted Ms Wong to scale back on new stores. She used the downtime "to look at areas we're not as strong in", including e-commerce.

The company re-launched its website and online store, and also listed products on marketplaces including Lazada, RedMart and China's Tmall Global, which helps foreign brands enter the country's e-commerce market.

Ms Wong said it is too early to reveal sales figures, but initial signs have been encouraging.

"There are orders coming in every day...We have a live chat to help customers clear doubts, and we sell big items like strollers and cots online as well."

She hopes online sales will contribute 40 per cent of the firm's revenue in two years, although bricks-and- mortar stores will still have an important role to play.

"It's the nature of our business - after doing all their research, people still want to touch and feel baby products before buying.

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"We hope to evolve the offline business in a way that blurs the lines between online and offline - like Amazon Go," she added, referring to Amazon's new convenience store concept that uses sensors and other technology so shoppers can check out without using a cashier.

Retailers need to see their online presence as more than just a way to sell products, said Mr Lee Yee Fung, group director of the lifestyle business group at International Enterprise (IE) Singapore.

"(It is also) a channel for brand discovery, consumer interaction, analytics and feedback. With this, retailers can then access more detailed analytics of consumer behaviour," he noted.

"This knowledge can then enable retailers to create the right experience for the consumers by balancing physical and online strategies, to differentiate them from other retailers in this competitive space."

This article was first published on Mar 22, 2017.
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