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Gadgets & Home Improvement

Foreigners set up furniture stores selling lesser-known brands

The absence of furniture that foreigners here have grown up with has spurred them to set up shop selling such pieces
The Straits Times - May 3, 2014
By: Natasha Ann Zachariah
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Foreigners set up furniture stores selling lesser-known brands Founded by Ms Irene Hoofs, Bloesem has myriad offerings including footwear and stationery (above). -- ST PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO

Ms Emelie Heden is in the midst of starting a business - one that will operate nearly 10,000km away from her.

The Stockholm-based Swedish citizen wants to run an auction-style business selling European and Scandinavian vintage and antique furniture.

Guests would be invited to viewings before furniture lots are hammered off to the highest bidder. And it will all take place in Singapore.

The Republic was an obvious choice for Ms Heden, who lived, studied and worked here for six years before returning home last December. She had worked at furniture store Dream Interiors in River Valley Road as a marketing manager for two years.

"Having worked in Singapore in the furniture industry, I think I know the market better than my hometown in terms of what prices would work and what type of furniture people would prefer," says Ms Heden, 31. "There's a market for such furniture here and I see the trend of people wanting to mix new furniture with old ones, so it's an idea which could work here. This is also my passion so I wanted to do it."

She will source her furniture from flea markets and drive out to smaller towns for farm auctions in Sweden during the summer to get these one-off pieces such as chairs, small ornaments and plates in retro, Gustavian or Rococo styles.

Hoping to hold a first auction in September, she is now looking at venues such as art galleries.

She will run the business by shuttling between Sweden and Singapore: Once she fills two 40-feet containers with wares, she will ship them to Singapore, then fly over herself to start marketing the auctions.

She hopes to organise four auctions a year.

Ms Heden is part of a growing trend of foreigners making their foray into the furniture market in Singapore - be it opening a store after moving here or running one remotely with the help of local managers.

Early examples are Originals and The Past Perfect Collection - both at the Sime Darby Centre in Dunearn Road - as well as Fred Lives Here, which opened in an Emerald Hill shophouse in 2012. Now located at Orchard Central, it is owned by Ms Angie Pasley, 31, who is from New Zealand.

In the last few months, at least five such furniture and accessories shops have opened: Artful House in Tan Boon Liat Building, Chillal in Haji Lane, Singapore Trading Post in Pasir Panjang, Modern Eclectic Living in Lower Delta Road and Bloesem in Eng Hoon Street.

Briton Jo Harrison, 46, who co-owns Singapore Trading Post with New Zealander Rob Pendergrast, 57, says: "If you go to the shops in the malls, the prices for furniture are obscene.

"The shopping culture here is dispiriting because, if you're looking for good pieces to decorate your home with, there're very limited options for people who don't have thousands of dollars to spend."

Mr Amit Chillal, who opened two self-named stores last year, sees Singapore as a good test bed before launching other stores internationally. His stores have furniture and home accessories which he personally sourced.

"Singapore is the best place to experiment what works for a furniture store because there are so many nationalities here," says the 37-year-old. "Home owners here don't mind trying new things."

One reason for the proliferation of these stores is this: With many expatriates moving to Singapore, there are bound to be those who want to decorate their homes with the same kind of furniture they are used to back home. Those who cannot find what they want then take to bringing them in themselves, and others start asking where they got the items, and a business idea is born.

Take, for example, Originals' owner Geri Murphy, who moved to Singapore in 1995 when her husband relocated here for work. Originals, which first opened in 2003 in Gillman Village, has items from Europe, India, Indonesia and Thailand.

"Every expat experiences having to create a home away from home," says Ms Murphy. "In most cases, people come minus the physical homes they had. They need to rebuild.

"So the desire for furniture and accessories resonates strongly as a constant demand among their friends and acquaintances in Singapore."

While she initially catered mainly to the expatriate crowd here, she says she now gets a "healthy mix" of locals and foreigners.

"Creating something new, fresh and different is a great reason to start a business. People bring influences from around the globe and see their tastes under-represented, so that drives them to introduce their picks to this receptive marketplace."

These owners say they are in the business for the long haul, even if their stay might be temporary.

Ms Padmaja Rajagopalan, who is in her 30s and whose eight-month-old Artful House sells colonial furniture, says: "It was a conscious decision to open here and I looked hard for places to open.

"It's never easy to open a business but Singapore's a good place to start."

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