Netting a profit on the net

Netting a profit on the net

Tech-savvy entrepreneur Perline Chua can make a cool $20,000 in a good month.

The 31-year-old sells apparel online for women, which she imports from countries like China, Thailand and Hong Kong.

She started the business, Starblink, in 2008, after quitting her job as a credit card promoter.

She hasn't looked back since.

Online retailers like her are benefitting from a generation of shoppers who have no qualms about spending their dough in the virtual world.

A study conducted by research company Nielsen put the value of Singapore's online shopping market at $1.1 billion in 2010, a number that is predicted to quadruple by 2015.

A separate survey done by the same company last year states that the number of online grocery shoppers here surged 71 per cent over 2010.

The trend is not surprising, given that Singapore's rate of Internet penetration is nearly 100 per cent.

Some of Madam Chua's customers are such loyal online shoppers that they camp in front of their computers to wait for new arrivals.

Others write to her to complain whenever fresh stock arrives later than scheduled.

The mother of a six-month-old, who has more than 1,000 designs in stock at any one point, brings in 20 to 30 new designs every week.

The business is hosted on e-marketplace Qoo10, which charges retailers a fee of six to 12 per cent per transaction.

It is a small dent in her profits that Madam Chua is happy to forgo.

"Qoo10 has about 900,000 registered users, so there's quite a big market for me here. Even though I have my own website and domain name, it doesn't get as many hits," she explains.

The e-marketplace has about 53,000 online retailers here, who sell anything from instant cameras to baby food.

The best-selling category of goods, however, is fashion. The platform also allows for customers to share photographs of themselves with their purchases and to leave feedback and comments about the retailers and products.

Madam Chua, who opened Starblink with a base capital of about $3,000, says the beginning of the business venture was difficult.

"I only had about three to four orders a day, and would stand in line at the post office, watching others with more parcels, feeling green with envy. I wondered when it would be my turn," she recalls.

Growing the business was a gradual process which involved hours of hard work.

"It's a day-in-day-out routine of answering queries, uploading and editing the photos of the clothes and the stock levels, then packing and mailing the packages out," she says.

Aside from working between 9am and 7pm on weekdays, she also answers e-mails on weekends. There is no official "day off", she says.

"Sometimes, you get unreasonable customers who call you names or scold you via e-mail," she reveals.

Customers who get her goat the most are those who ask for a refund after buying an item which doesn't fit, but yet refuse to mail it back.

"They want their money, but they don't want to return the piece of clothing. It's quite crazy."

But she is willing to tolerate the occasional virtual tantrums for the success she has found, and would not trade it for the world.

These days, she sends out more than 100 packages a day to teenagers and young working adults typically aged between 18 and 23.

The biggest selling point of her products, which include cardigans, dresses and tops, is their cheap price tags.

Customers can buy a blouse for a mere $5.90, or pick out a dress from a more premium range for about $40.

"There's a lot of satisfaction in seeing your own business grow and blossom. It's also wonderful to realise that something you built with your own hands can put food on the table," she says.

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