Rakuten's big shopping plans for Singapore

Rakuten's big shopping plans for Singapore
Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten Inc.

SINGAPORE - Rakuten Inc might have bought local start-up Viki for an estimated US$200 million (S$252 million), but now it is Singapore's turn to buy things from it.

Japan's largest online retail store has big plans for the local version of its online shopping site - also named Rakuten - that it launched in January, according to its CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani.

"As we scale, we need to have more products on our (local) website. We need to improve brand awareness, we need to increase our membership base dramatically," Mr Mikitani told The Business Times last week.

Mr Mikitani, who is also the chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, was in town for the Singapore leg of the orchestra's world tour.

When Rakuten first waded into Singapore's online shopping scene, it started with more than 120 Japanese and local merchants. Now, it has 150 merchants and aims to double that by year-end.

Since its soft launch in December, the number of members for its local site has trebled.

"It's still (in the) very early stages and we're seeing momentum in the growth, so I think we're pretty happy," said Mr Mikitani.

Rakuten's strategy for global expansion is based on a two-layered set-up - a localised engine built on top of a standardised global platform.

In Singapore, this has translated into a store that offers products priced in Singapore dollars with a mix of Japanese and local retailers. On its bar of trending items, "collagen" sits alongside "Gundam" and "Shiseido". Japanese wagyu ribeye slices are offered next to Bosch electric kettles.

Last year, Rakuten took in 518.6 billion yen (S$6.41 billion) in revenue, the bulk of it from Japan.

Outside Japan, however, Rakuten is making a play for markets where other players are entrenched, such as in the United States, France, Germany and Brazil.

However, Mr Mikitani is undaunted by the prospect of competition as he believes Rakuten's merchant- centric approach is what sets it apart from its rivals.

"Rakuten is all about the shops. So, we need to put our merchant in front of the customer, not just use them as a product source. They are the main players of Rakuten. We are just the conductor," he said.

"We give a sense of security to the user - if you buy from small merchants, we will take care of you. That will make your experience very different and very special (compared to) buying from the gigantic . . . sites."

While the launch of Rakuten's Singapore site at the start of the year was relatively low-key, the company is ready to trumpet its presence now.

A gigantic Rakuten shopping bag installation sits on Orchard Road as part of Rakuten's three-day showcase of more than 300 products from some 40 merchants, starting from today.

The shopping bag is likely a metaphor for Rakuten's outsized ambitions for Singapore. "The goal is to create a global e-commerce platform, where Singaporeans can buy from all over the world, not just from the Singapore site, but from the Japan site or French site or US site . . . That is our ambition," Mr Mikitani said.

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