It must be daunting to plonk down money for a sofa online without sitting on it.
But new independent retailers of furniture and home accessories, who are entering the online sphere, hope shoppers will enjoy browsing a greater spectrum of products at leisure - even as the sellers themselves save on the hefty costs of doing business in Singapore.
Retailers say the online route helps them save on rental and manpower, which in turn allows them to pass on the savings to their customers.
Adjunct associate professor Lynda Wee from the Nanyang Business School, who lectures on retail management, says the number of online furniture retailers here appears to have increased.
Being online lets business owners save on renting a physical showroom or shop, she notes, especially when furniture can occupy large amounts of space. Online retailers save on paying sales staff as well.
For customers, going online lets them shop at any time and browse items at a much faster pace.
She adds: "Since many people already use online sites and mobile apps to buy air tickets, order food and book Uber trips, they are less likely to be resistant to buying furniture online."
However, adjunct senior lecturer of marketing Regina Yeo from the National University of Singapore Business School cautions that customers may not trust an e-shop if it has no physical presence. "Especially with news of retail fraud and the rise of scams reported in the media, consumers are now more wary."
In reverse, some online stores have branched out to open physical stores. Castlery, for example, started as an online furniture store in 2013, but opened a showroom at Delta House last year. The showroom was expanded last month to 12,000 sq ft.
Its co-founder Declan Ee, 33, says: "We noticed that while our consumers appreciate being able to access our full catalogue online - and are able to speak to our customer relations officers if they need help - many prefer to see and test the product before buying, especially when it comes to bigger-ticket items like furniture."
Music producer Edric Hwang bought a desk, a sideboard, a lamp, two bedside tables, two sofas and two armless sofas from Castlery's online store this year.
The 29-year-old says: "Shopping online means I can browse the catalogue whenever and wherever. It is more convenient than going to a store.
"For the tables and the sideboard, I feel I don't need to try them. For the sofas, I saw what I liked on the Castlery website, went to the showroom to sit on them and then went online again to buy."
An outlet for staff's creativity
When Degree Store was set up in 2011, it was mainly an outlet for staff at advertising agency DDB Singapore to expend their creative energy.
Among their first creations was an intriguing poster that looked like a tree's cross-section, embedded with animal images. The team also produced T-shirts showing a man on a bicycle.
Five years on, their online store has grown to feature more than 100 products, including furniture, wall art, stationery and fashion accessories.
The website (www.degreestore.net) was revamped to include more visuals last month and a small physical space has been set aside in the agency's office to let customers see and touch the products. They can do so by appointment.
DDB's creative director Joel Chin, who declined to give his age, says: "The idea behind the store is so we don't waste good ideas that come up when we brainstorm. Some ideas are not used in the work we do for clients, but they are still good ones worth developing, so we want to turn them into commercial products.
"That said, our main motivation for the store is not to make money, but to encourage creativity."
DDB has about 330 staff and has worked on campaigns by fast-food chain McDonald's and telecommunications company StarHub.
DDB's associate creative director Sharon Goh, 37, says that with online shopping taking off in Singapore, demand for their products appears to be rising, with interest from buyers both in Singapore and abroad.
Among the store's bestsellers are a series of posters featuring botanical prints.
Some products in the online store are created by DDB staff, such as its alphabet furniture collection, consisting of a table, chair and lamp assembled using letters of the alphabet. The table, for example, is assembled with wooden pieces in the shape of the letters T, A, B, L and E.
The brainchild of Mr Chin and DDB's senior art director Elmy Thong, each piece costs US$290 (S$395) and a set costs US$800.
Other items are collaborations between DDB and other creatives.
For example, a tribute tableware set -a saucer, bowl and plate - sells for US$35 and comes in red, yellow or blue. The wooden crockery set with a lacquer finish is inspired by hawker-style tableware and was an idea from local multi-disciplinary design house Acre.
DDB assists with the sale and shipping of the items and shares the profit with Acre.
Last month, DDB carved out a 225 sq ft gallery space at its office at Kallang to display the products.
Its deputy executive creative director Thomas Yang, 43, says: "Since the space is in our office, customers who come down might also be able to meet the artists and designers behind the product. Having a gallery also inspires our staff and collaborators to continue with good ideas and products."
Soft spot for beautiful table settings
Instead of splashing out on a showroom manned by sales staff, Ms Shahnaz Nazimuddeen decided online was the way to go.
Two months ago, the 25-year-old former beauty queen and F1 grid girl launched Lovlihaus (www.lovlihaus.com), an online store selling about 100 products including home accessories such as dessert stands, plates and coasters.
These items are stored in a 31 sq ft storage unit in Kallang, which costs $285 a month to rent.
She says: "As a new business, it is important to keep costs low."
Online, customers can shop at any time of the day, she notes. "They can also look at many more items in a given time."
About 80 per cent of her time is devoted to her online responsibilities - updating her website, for example, and posting updates on social media to attract traffic. Online sales comprise 65 per cent of her total sales.
Offline, she sets up pop-up stores at wedding events and invites customers to see her products at her office in North Bridge Road.
Her products, mostly sourced from wholesalers and factories in Singapore and abroad, include a 55cm-tall birdcage made from stainless steel, with two tiers to hold desserts. It costs $300.
She also sells an ornate stainless- steel grapevine tray for $65, which can be used to hold entrees, desserts or flowers.
Business has been good, she says. For example, the store has sold 21 sets, of a porcelain soup bowl and plate, costing $16 a set.
Sales pick up around festive dates such as Hari Raya Puasa, when shoppers look for new decorative items for their homes.
Through her website, customers place orders and pay via Paypal. Buyers in Singapore can get their products delivered for free the next day by Lovlihaus' courier van.
The store also delivers to Malaysia and Brunei via SingPost, at extra cost and with a delivery time of four to seven working days.
For Ms Shahnaz, creating an online store was simple and inexpensive. She built a virtual shopfront using e-commerce software Shopify.
She also tapped on her network of friends and contacts to take beautiful photos of her products for the site.
In addition, she tied up with online firm A Better Florist, which imports flowers directly from Cameron Highlands farmers, to offer bouquets through Lovlihaus.
She says: "When having tea, customers might want some flowers to beautify the table, so this is a good collaboration."
Beautifying the house has always been her interest, says Ms Shahnaz, who was a finalist in Miss Singapore Universe 2011.
"As a child, I always followed my mother when she went shopping for home interior items and she taught me what looks good and why it is important for the home to look good," she says of her housewife mother, now in her 50s.
"I have also always loved tea parties, especially those with beautiful table settings and exquisite tableware - and hope my products can help more people make memories with their family and friends."
Lower costs with D-I-Y
For Swede Emelie Heden, 33, setting up Mobler (www.moblersingapore.com), an online store selling Scandinavian antique and vintage furniture, was no easy feat.
It has meant long hours and lots of heavy lifting, but she felt inspired to bring vintage furniture to Singapore.
The founder and chief executive of Mobler, which was launched last Monday, says: "I have so much beautiful furniture in my home country. And having lived in Singapore for so long, I know people like my style and want furniture with character."
She moved to Singapore in 2008 with her Swedish then boyfriend who found a job here, but they broke up within six months of the move.
Deciding to stay on, she continued studying and working full-time here, while opening a small shop in her Singapore home selling vintage furniture twice a month.
In 2011, she closed the shop to work as a marketing manager for a large Singapore furniture shop, but still dreamt of running a vintage furniture store full-time.
It was only in 2013 that she worked up the courage to quit.
She went to Sweden to source for items and investors and returned to Singapore this year to open her online store. This time, her sister Ellen, 25, came along and is now the store's creative director.
The store sells more than 350 pieces of vintage furniture with styles from the 1800s.
Among the oldest pieces is a 1.7m-tall mirror from the 1860s in the Empire style, which probably came from an old Swedish castle or mansion. It costs $2,600 and comes with a marble-top table.
All the furniture is pre-owned and sourced from furniture dealers in Sweden. The store does not deliver, but can assist with wrapping the products and putting customers in touch with delivery services.
Although items can be bought only online, they can be picked up from Mobler's 2,200 sq ft showroom in Balestier. Since the store's launch, more than 10 items have been sold.
Ms Emelie Heden says: "It is just the two of us here and we unloaded the container - which carried the products - ourselves. It took us two whole days to unload 11 tonnes of furniture.
"I could have got some help, but it would have added to our costs. As entrepreneurs, I think we should be able to set up the store ourselves."
Thankfully, having an online store helps to keep her operating costs low. Ms Emelie Heden, who is now in a relationship, says: "If I wanted to display the items in a retail store, I would need twice the space I have now.
"I don't want to think about how much that would cost me."
A library of good design
Just like people going to the library to find a particular book, I hope they will come to us when they want to find a particular brand of furniture. '' MR ALVIN TAN (above), owner of Bibliotek Design Store, on its name
For Mr Alvin Tan, 33, owner of Bibliotek Design Store (www.bibliotek.co), the idea for an online store struck when he was looking for furniture and accessories for his new home last year.
ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE Just like people going to the library to find a particular book, I hope they will come to us when they want to find a particular brand of furniture.
MR ALVIN TAN (above), owner of Bibliotek Design Store, on its name
He says: "I found that many of the design-driven brands I liked were not available in retail stores here. I also discovered that some items were stocked only in high-end design stores, which I felt were a bit intimidating to enter. The atmosphere can be a little cold."
This made him go online to source for his furniture and home accessories. It also made him realise there are others facing similar challenges. He says: "I want to let more people access established and upcoming labels easily, in a comfortable manner with minimal stress."
Last month, the former civil servant launched Bibliotek, which sells products such as home decor accessories, textiles, lighting and lifestyle objects from 14 brands.
Two - Desinere and Kuru - are Singapore brands. The rest includes brands such as Menu from Denmark and Kimu from Taiwan. A 18.5cm-tall Kimu wooden pinocchio vase, comprising a cylindrical vessel and a detachable sphere, costs $112.
All products are housed in a fulfilment centre - a warehouse where customer orders are processed - near Paya Lebar Airbase. Shipping, import duties and custom charges are borne by the customer and the shipping cost depends on the total weight of items and the destination of the delivery.
Buyers in Singapore will receive their products within three to five working days. If they spend $99 or more, shipping is free.
Business has been encouraging, says Mr Tan, though he declined to provide details.
He has neither a physical store nor showroom. He works from his walk- up studio apartment in Novena, where he lives with his 35-year-old civil servant wife.
Asked about the store's name, he says Bibliotek means "library" in Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. "Just like people going to the library to find a particular book, I hope they will come to us when they want to find a particular brand of furniture."
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