Now open: Rakuten SG

Japanese online marketplace launches local site with a focus on high-quality Japanese-related merchandise. LESLIE KAY LIM reports

Japanese online marketplace Rakuten is the latest player to join the e-commerce space here with the official launch of Rakuten Singapore's operations on Tuesday.

With a concept similar to eBay and Amazon Marketplace, it connects shoppers with more than 120 individual merchants and hopes to have 300 by the end of the year. About half of its offerings are in fashion, health and beauty, but it also has a sizeable culinary category to cater to food-crazy Singaporeans.

"We found that many Singapore-based consumers were already shopping on our global e-commerce site," says Mr Shingo Okamoto, head of Rakuten's Singapore business, on why the company decided to open a local branch.

"And we are very excited about the e-commerce potential of Singapore and the highly e-literate market."

The online shopping market in Singapore reached $1.9 billion in 2012, according to e-payment firm PayPal, and is forecast to hit $4.4 billion by 2015.

Rakuten will go head-to-head with South Korea-founded Qoo10 and China-based Taobao, both of which offer products across multiple categories and have been in Singapore for several years.

Mr Hyun Wook Cho, country manager of Qoo10 Singapore, says he welcomes the newcomer, noting: "New players in the e-commerce market will help to develop Singapore into a mature e-marketplace with higher e-commerce penetration like that of the United States and South Korea."

Qoo10 Singapore was launched in 2008 under the name Gmarket Singapore before it was renamed in 2010. It has more than 2,000 retailers and prides itself on the variety of products sold and discounts offered.

Project coordinator Geraldine Goh, 23, has been shopping at sites such as Qoo10 and Taobao since last year, mainly for fashion items ranging from clothes to shoes.

"I like that things are cheap," she says. "I receive my items quickly and it's user-friendly. I can filter out what I want and don't want easily."

Shoppers like Ms Lili Soh, a 28-year-old civil servant, are excited about Rakuten's arrival in Singapore.

"I've shopped at the Japan site a few times for items like cosplay wigs, yukata and kimono accessories," she says, adding that she hopes the Rakuten Singapore site will have goods from Japan with fast and cheap shipping options.

Other smaller e-commerce platforms are getting into the action too, as a growing number of people become comfortable with shopping online.

Last year, two smaller e-commerce platforms launched in Singapore, home-grown ShopAbout and Sosoon from Taiwan, which offer items ranging from fashion to home appliances.

While nowhere near the big players, these platforms benefit from tighter curation and standards in terms of retailers and merchandise, says ShopAbout founder Reuben Lee, 25.

Launched last April, ShopAbout features mid-tier merchants such as The Cambridge Satchel Company and New Urban Male that have a physical presence in Singapore as well.

"Those marketplaces (Qoo10, eBay, Rakuten) do not protect the branding image of their merchants and are happy selling quality retail products next to cheap $5 knockoffs sold by an individual seller in his bedroom somewhere in China," he says. "But brick-and-mortar retailers, like the ones we carry, do not want to be seen selling alongside them."

For now, Rakuten intends to differentiate itself from the existing players by focusing on the access it can provide to high-quality Japanese-related goods across all categories. More than half of its retailers are Japanese.

That being said, shoppers may be taking a wait-and-see approach as to whether the retailers on the newly launched platform will provide enough of a draw.

Accountant Vanessa Goh, 43, who has shopped previously at Rakuten Japan and Rakuten Global, says there are not enough Japanese retailers on Rakuten Singapore to pique her interest. She says she is more likely to continue shopping at the Rakuten Japan site and take advantage of periodic shipping promotions.

Rakuten's Mr Okamoto responds by highlighting the more user-friendly features on the Singapore-specific website, such as prices in Singapore dollars, as well as faster shipping and cheaper rates compared with that for purchases from the global marketplace.

And the selection of retailers is set to grow, he adds, saying: "Naturally, our Japan and global site have had many more years to grow the number of Japanese retailers. But we have plans to significantly grow the number of Rakuten Singapore merchants, both Japanese and local.

"We aim to be the No. 1 e-commerce site in Singapore in five years' time."