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Health, Beauty & Fashion

exclusively, in CYBERSPACE

In addition to good customer service, online stores these days are offering niche, hard-to-find labels for the style maven
The Straits Times - April 19, 2013
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exclusively, in CYBERSPACE

Online stores that offer value-added services are a dime a dozen. Many provide top-notch service, including free alterations, a no-questions-asked return policy and even the flexibility to design one's outfits.

These days, however, in an increasingly competitive market, more online shops here are upping their game by also offering niche labels.

At least seven home-grown websites offering hard-to-find fashion brands sourced from around the world have sprung up in the last year.

Professor Bernd Schmitt, executive director of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight at Nanyang Technological University, says more shoppers are moving away from mass retailers to specialists that can provide a more refined shopping experience.

"Shoppers want to get their hands on products that are not readily available elsewhere. They don't want to wear something that many others will have as well," he says.

This is why many new websites offer a stable of labels previously unavailable to many shoppers here.

Some focus on emerging designers from a specific region or independent retailers that offer handmade products.

For instance, year-old accessories online store Curated Editions stocks mostly artisanal bracelets, necklaces and bags from six independent labels, such as Hong Kong accessories brand Venna.

While some websites stock established brands, these are available in limited quantities or are designed specially for the e-stores.

Womenswear portal Inverted Edge, which launched last month with 36 indie labels from the Asia-Pacific, says it works with designers to create capsule collections - a small range of limited looks - exclusive to the website.

Prices range from US$110 (S$136) for a silk tank top from Nineteen-Eighty to US$370 for a Jayson Brunsdon evening gown.

Ms Debra Langley, its founder and chief executive, says: "We have to give women a good reason to want to shop at our site. This is why we work very closely with the designers to create special collections for our clients."

She adds: "Women want something different but may not want to pay top dollar for those pieces."

So far, this niche angle has worked for these online stores.

Ms Angie Lai-Tay, co-owner of Curated Editions, says: "Each time we put up new accessories, they will be sold out in a week."

While she cannot reveal specific sales figures, Ms Lisa Crosswhite, owner of multi-label boutique Gnossem, says the site has seen a growth in the number of returning shoppers.

Gnossem, a multi-label e-store launched in January last year, says it has seen an average of 70,000 visitors a month in the last four months, up from about 10,000 in the first six months.

Ms Crosswhite declines to reveal specific figures, but says the number of visitors who make a purchase has also grown by about 40 per cent in the last six months.

Brick-and-mortar stores acknowledge the draw of online shops, but say a physical shopping experience cannot be replicated in cyberspace.

Ms Apsara Oswal, whose multi-label boutique MYthology in Club Street stocks 27 emerging labels mostly from Asia, says: "Despite all the conveniences, many shoppers still want to see how an item looks and feels before buying."

The Singaporean reveals that a few of the labels her store carries did not want to be stocked in online stores. One of them is Gemma Redux, a New York accessories label which is unique to her store.

Ms Oswal adds: "Overall, I don't see online stores as competition. Indeed, they are very polished these days and do have plus points but we cater to different needs."

Mr Ian Tansley, managing director of luxury British menswear site Mr Porter, says online stores have to go beyond just selling clothes.

Sites should aim to be one-stop shops so customers will be drawn to come back. To do this, they have to offer comprehensive styling tips and trend reports, for instance, so they become a fashion resource for shoppers, he says.

Insurance agent Elizabeth Leong, who frequents online stores Doorstep Luxury and Gnossem, says these value-added features are helpful.

But while the convenience of being able to shop anywhere, any time is appealing, the 29-year-old notes there are some issues she cannot get past.

"Sometimes, what you see on-screen, especially on a mobile phone, is not the same as the real thing. I ordered a dark blue bag once and when it arrived, the colour was darker and closer to black than what was shown," she recounts.

"And it doesn't matter how closely I measure myself using the size guide these online stores provide, somehow, certain garments just do not fit right and I have to go through the hassle of returning them for something else. This won't happen when I shop at a physical store."

To overcome the inherent challenges of online shopping, some e-tailers have started holding regular pop-up events. Not only do they get to meet their customers at these events, they can also let shoppers try on and examine their products up close.

"We understand that some shoppers are reluctant to buy something without trying it on, especially if it's pricey" says Ms Evon Tan, co-owner of online store The Fashion Headlines.

"That's why these pop-up events are important. Once they know the fit or how certain items look on them, they will have more confidence to shop online."

The site, launched in January, is holding its first pop-up event this weekend at SocialHaus in Yong Siak Street.

Ms Tan adds: "These events also help to build customers' trust in us as they can see for themselves the quality of our products."

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