The day hasn’t come yet where you step into a store and the resident robot immediately sizes up your taste, size and budget, laying everything out for you without judgment or even expecting to make a sale. It even serves you drinks and is programmed to make approving noises when you try something on.
While there are no robots as yet, a new wave of retailers is heading in the direction of experiential shopping – creating intimate, home-style environments as they try to fill the gap between online shopping and the ubiquitous mall.
“People are buying less and better,” notices Ling Wu, who recently set up Le Salon in a Chip Bee apartment to sell her eponymous brand of handbags in a homey setting. “They are more emotionally invested in their purchases, and this provides a platform for me to connect personally with them.” The fact that she pays a lower rent for an apartment than a shop in a mall, is another deciding factor.
Whether they’re selling handbags, jewellery, home furnishings or even guitars, such retailers are tapping into the millennial-driven pursuit of emotional connections. Such unconventional shopping environments “strengthen the storytelling by leveraging the physical ambience or surrounding to support the story”, according to retail marketing expert Lynda Wee.
“Shoppers want experiences,” says the adjunct associate professor at NTU‘s business school, “so this is one form of it.” And in the process, it gives home shopping a whole new meaning.
Peruvian Aurora Cardenas has been in Singapore for six years, and is too familiar with the challenging retail scene here. Since 2015, she’s been selling her range of Peruvian silver jewellery online, but also at invitation-only private parties.
“To have a shop in Singapore requires a big investment,” says Cardenas. “For me, the one-to-one interaction is very important given that my pieces are 100 per cent handmade and all have a story to tell.”
The jewellery parties are held mainly in the homes of her clients, and 20 to 40 people show up each time. “Clients invite their friends and I am introduced to new clients,” she says. Her busiest months are March to June and September to December, when there are such parties every week.
Food and wine are served, and sometimes Ms Cardenas also prepares Peruvian snacks. The jewellery is displayed on stands or furniture around the home, and clients are free to try them out. Ms Cardenas also shares stories of the artisans, the brand, and of Peru.
Paqarina Jewellery is made from 950 silver, which is 95 per cent pure silver and is purer than 925 silver sterling. Ms Cardenas works with artisans from some of the poorest regions of Peru, who use jewellery-making techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. She carries a selection of earrings, necklaces, rings, and bracelets, in silver and gold-plated silver, and prices start from $25.
She has also brought her jewellery parties to Jakarta, when a client in Singapore introduced her to an Indonesian lady. “Homes in Indonesia are much larger and we can have 100 people at a time,” says Ms Cardenas. She also recently hosted a similar party in Hong Kong.
“I enjoy interacting with the people at the private parties, explaining the details of my brand and every piece,” she says. “Also, it helps that those who attend the parties are more interested in the product than some of the walk-ins in a traditional store.”
At Ling Wu’s Le Salon at Chip Bee Gardens, people aren’t so much customers as guests invited to someone’s home. It’s where the handbag designer artfully displays her luxury bags made of exotic skins such as python and crocodile on shelves in the ‘living room’.
Although she retails her collection at Tangs, Robinsons and online, she also wanted a standalone shop but not in a shopping mall or even a street level shophouse unit. “I travel to Japan and Hong Kong, and the better shops are in residential neighbourhoods,” she says. “And it had to be on the second floor, because I wanted customers to climb up some steps and then be surprised.”
Le Salon is bright and airy. Music plays in the background, the floor is adorned with carpets, and there are comfortable sofas to lounge on. The shelves are filled not just with handbags, but other decorative items. “People ask if I live here,” says Ms Wu, whose own home is a 10-minute drive away.
“People are tired of the traditional way of shopping, going to the mall, and then walking out,” she says. “I want to create a more relaxed and yet sophisticated experience.”
Here at Le Salon, Ms Wu is able to share with customers the story behind the design of the bags, and also accept customised orders, something which she couldn’t do in Tangs or Robinsons. “The service here at Le Salon is more one-to-one,” she says, “This is also something that I want when I shop.”
Having a private space means that she can also sell items from other brands, such as candles and fragranced art objects from A Dose of Something Good; accessories from Dark Horse Vintage; and cashmere scarves from Trebene. Items cost from $49 for a gold chain necklace from Dark Horse Vintage to $4,800 for a full crocodile bag from Ling Wu.
Furniture is next. She plans to work with brands to showcase their products here, so that shoppers can even buy the chair that they sit on. 43 Jalan Merah Saga, #02-78.
As any singer-songwriter knows, nothing defines a musician more than the songs he sings and the instrument he plays, which is why – whether you’re strumming for tips on a street corner or playing to a sold-out stadium – the acoustic guitar stands tall as a symbol of musical intent. To quote the Grammy-winning artiste Christopher Cross: “If you can’t play it on an acoustic guitar or a grand piano then it’s not a song.”
Which is why Bernard Godfrey is rarely far from either one – acoustic guitar or song, that is. He is a guitar-playing singer who has also turned his passion for music into a six-stringed business: an online store that offers high-quality new and used acoustic guitars to discerning types, who can also test their guitars in an environment that has, well, sound acoustics.
The two-year-old site (www.bernardgodfreyguitars.com) features a mouth-watering array of instruments that is likely to generate guitar envy – or at least pique the interest of any self-respecting guitar player. Mr Godfrey, 32, operates a studio-like space near Holland Village where people can collect their purchases, channel their inner Bob Dylan or take private lessons.He also makes some of the best specialty coffee in the neighbourhood, having enhanced his skills as a barista by offering hand-pulled espressos and cappuccinos to customers whenever they bring in their guitars to be conditioned. “Humidity damages the wood but when you keep the guitars in a good, dry condition, 95 per cent of the issues is removed,” he explains. “And when people are served a decent cup of coffee it creates a social bond.”
Mr Godfrey’s long association with guitars has its roots in his native Sri Lanka, where his father was an accomplished Sinhalese folk musician. His father taught him to play the guitar and because he was a sickly child he stayed home a lot, and had ample time to practise. In Singapore, he performs an impressive repertoire of Blues and rock classics at various places around town, either solo or as part of a band.
Mr Godfrey, who has a degree from the NUS School of Design and Environment, started trading guitars as a student. He then worked in the construction industry for a few years while also moonlighting in a band before deciding to become a full-time musician. “I love this instrument called the guitar,” he says. “The amount of liberation and joy it has brought me has just been immense.”
Visitors to his website have a wide selection to choose from. Mr Godfrey is an official dealer of well-known names such as McPherson, Charis and Furch as well as homegrown brand Maestro. An entry-level guitar might cost S$850 while a top-of-the-line Brazilian rosewood McPherson will set you back $25,000.
Many instruments are held by Mr Godfrey on a consignment basis as there are local collectors who own dozens of guitars – one of his regular clients has 190 of them. “The guitar fever has been here for ages,” he says. “Like most collectors, they want to share their passion with others and sometimes they want to trade them.” Through his website, social media posts and word of mouth among the well-informed guitar-owning community, the business has attracted buyers from the region and even further afield from places such as India, China and Europe.
“We try to get guitars that will hold their value,” says Godfrey, adding that whenever anyone makes an enquiry, he takes a soft-sell approach. “For us, the idea is not just to sell an instrument, it’s to sell a feeling, a certain passion that someone will carry with him for the rest of his life. Playing the guitar has brought me so many good things and we try to inspire people through our guitars – it’s as simple as that.” 68 Jalan Kelabu Asap (by appointment only)
The second floor of Cluny Court is home to a handful of homeware stores. But few may know about another one, which has a secret address. Shiva Designs Bespoke is located on the fourth floor, with other wellness-related businesses, and accessible only by lift.
Founder Rima Srivastava used to operate her homeware business from a studio in her home in Bukit Timah, but slightly more than a year ago, she moved it into this three-bedroom apartment.
She shares the apartment with her husband, who runs his own shipping and commodities business. “He was renting the space earlier, and using only the bedrooms. The living room wasn’t used which was such a waste,” says Ms Srivastava. It’s now filled with sofas, cushions and art that are all for sale, plus shelves filled with candles, cocktail kits and ceramic ware. Prices start from $14 for a bar of soap, to $3,000 for an artwork.
She had been approached by various malls, but turned down the idea. Selling her wares, by artists from Australia, the United States and France, in a home setting meant that “customers can see how the items would fit in their homes”, she says. Also, “Customers like coming here, because it feels like a secret shop.”
She acknowledges that unlike a shopping mall, there is less footfall, but “this also allows me to dictate my hours”.
Another plus is that she can easily convert the space into an art gallery for visiting artists.
She reckons the rent she pays is comparable to a proper shop, but says the apartment space is much larger.
“Customers come here with a purpose, rather than at the malls, where they could be just browsing,” she says. “We provide an exclusive shopping experience, that is at the same time, open to all.” Cluny Court, #04-02
HEADER PHOTO Bernard Godfrey Guitars & Shiva Designs Bespoke