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When Singaporeans shop online, they tend to buy products sourced from outside the lion state.

Overall, it’s estimated that 55% of all ecommerce transactions in Singapore are cross-border – meaning the items were listed on etailers in the US or China, for example – and then shipped to their eventual destination.

The statistic is higher than corresponding figures for cross-border online trade in Japan, South Korea, and China.

This is undoubtedly strengthened by the fact that the overwhelming majority of ecommerce purchases in Singapore are prepaid with credit card and Singaporean consumers are exempt from GST and import duties as long as the total value of their order is below S$400.

Singapore is also a high-income country, meaning residents can afford to splurge, while also bereft of the same logistical challenges that stymie higher adoption of ecommerce in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. Next-day delivery is the norm.

In 2016, the World Bank declared Singapore the fourth-best country for logistics infrastructure in the world noting it’s an important hub for regional and world trade, located conveniently in the heart of major shipping lanes.

There are other factors at play, too. Amazon and Singpost have a collaboration to facilitate the delivery of overseas purchases within three days – roughly the average time it takes to deliver a domestic order in Indonesia.

Despite the fantasized utopia of a truly open world economy – a scenario where goods and services can move unhindered to where demand is – the reality is that cross-border flows still involve a great deal of friction.

Cutting down cross-border fees for Singaporeans

The first problem is that there’s a high degree of financial inefficiency, with banks and payment processors trying to capitalize on arbitrage opportunities to bump up their own bottom line. Foreign exchange rates also work against consumer interest with banks routinely charging far more than official rates. And lastly, consumers are simply unaware of the available discounts and promotions that may be applicable to their purchase.

Jake Goh, CEO of RateX.

“Consumers are still paying unnecessary fees when they shop online, e.g. they pay 2%-5% in transaction fees on top of the price of the goods they purchase due to the frictions in existing payment networks,” explains Jake Goh, CEO and co-founder of RateX, a Singaporean payments startup that’s trying to iron out these inefficiencies and level the playing field.

RateX, which recently raised a US$2.3 million pre-series A funding round, has built a free browser extension – currently available on Chrome and Firefox – where users can get the lowest exchange rates for overseas purchases on Amazon and Taobao.

The extension also aggregates coupon codes, applying it directly to applicable sales. It leverages partnerships with Sephora, Zalora, ASOS, and more.

The extension is currently only available for consumers in Singapore, but the team expects to add Taiwan and Indonesia to its roster later this year. The long-term goal like most companies is to dominate the region.

“Southeast Asia is the world’s fastest-growing internet market. Gross merchandise value of ecommerce will rise to US$65.5 billion by 2021, up from US$14.3 billion in 2016,” outlines Jake referring to a study by Frost & Sullivan.

Jake claims RateX has helped shoppers save S$500,000 in both foreign exchange conversion fees and coupon codes since launch. He adds that they’re expanding at 30% month-on-month but doesn’t specify whether that’s in terms of users or transaction value.

A cursory examination of the website reveals the number to be actually S200,000 though.

Leveraging blockchain

The founder accepts that while the ultimate goal is to simplify cross-border commerce for all of Southeast Asia, a key hurdle the company faces is siloed infrastructure when it comes to payment and settlement mechanisms. There are significant overheads and fees involved when dealing with multiple currencies and paying merchants in different countries.

So what’s the solution to this problem? Jake believes blockchain can minimize the intermediaries involved in cross-border settlements. The team’s already working on the Rate3 token – a proprietary payment network built on top of the Stellar horizon platform that specifically looks to solve problems in fintech.

“This significantly reduces the risk and fees associated with different banks in various countries […] RateX eventually leverages on [it’s] own payment network to scale in a much more efficient way compared to existing methods,” explains Jake.

The eventual aim is for the Rate3 token to be used pervasively across the ecommerce ecosystem, bridging together shoppers, merchants, 3PLs, wholesalers, and manufacturers.

“We believe that blockchain technologies are key to creating this [enabling network],” affirms Jake.

The key challenge for the team will be convincing the disparate players in the ecosystem to come onboard by accepting this token as a payment mechanism. It’s unclear what the incentive structures will be for them to move away from existing structures towards Rate3.

At the moment, however, the primary mode of monetization is via affiliate sales, where merchants give RateX a commission of the sales it brings to them. The RateX browser extension will suggest products as users browse sites and the site has an updated list of trending deals.

“This business model allows us to give consumers zero markup on exchange rate conversion fees and transaction rate fees,” outlines Jake.

Singaporean shopping preferences

The startup’s been facilitating shoppers in Singapore for a couple of years now. What has it noticed about trends in the country?

Jake reiterates the view that Singaporeans are one of the top cross-border shoppers in the world. Despite a thriving mall culture, the sheer variety of international brands and fast-fashion trends means that all products cannot be found in local stores. Even when they are, it’s sometimes cheaper to purchase from overseas via online shopping even after factoring in shipping fees.

The two largest segments for its user base are consumer electronics and appliances – which are primarily sourced from either the US or China – as well as clothing and fashion brands that haven’t established a presence in Singapore yet.

The dynamic goes some way in explaining why Amazon set up shop in Singapore as well as the decision of Lazada to offer merchant goods from Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace. Consumer purchase intent is marked and vivid, why not double down to make the process even more seamless?

Jake also notes that most RateX shoppers display a tendency to purchase things late at night.

Online activity spikes between 10PM – 1AM in Singapore.

Mobile shopping is on the upswing, Jake says, but it’s still not the dominant channel particularly when it comes to big-ticket purchases. Desktop browsing and shopping are deeply ingrained in the Singaporean consumer psyche, a factor that Jake believes is due to the better product comparison features on a larger screen.

Singaporeans are also incredibly plugged in. The average resident has over three connected devices and the overall internet penetration rate is about 85%, one of the highest in Asia, but Singapore isn’t a mobile-first country like Indonesia or the Philippines. Consumers accessed the web on desktops and PCs before the smartphone revolution engulfed the region. It doesn’t seem like these preferences are going away anytime soon.

With almost 4,300 store locations in 69 markets across the world, fast fashion retailer H&M is a quintessential example of a brand that constantly strives to provide high-quality products at affordable prices.

It’s come a long way since its humble origins.

The first store of what would eventually be known as H&M was opened by Swedish entrepreneur Erling Persson in 1947, after inspiration during a trip to New York. Initially, the store catered to womenswear alone; and was called Hennes, Swedish for ‘Hers’.’

The addition of menswear came after Hennes acquired Stockholm-based retailer Mauritz Widforss in 1968. Stores were rebranded as Hennes & Mauritz with international expansion to Denmark, Norway, U.K, and Switzerland starting the next year.

The acronym H&M was adopted as the firm’s official name after it went public in 1970.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Unprecedented expansion

H&M has grown by an average of 20% year-on-year in revenue since the 1980s. Part of the reason for this ferocious germination has been its ability to unearth the latest trends and sense what its target consumers aspire for.

Like other fast fashion companies, the product pipeline is quickly replenished as its marketing and design teams work in unison to keep clothes, shoes, & accessories up to date.

But it’s not enough just to make products that people want to buy. Brand building involves striking a chord with your audience; a message that H&M has carefully crafted over time.

Its focus on sustainability as a major ethos for the brand has earned acclaim. Consumers can drop off unwanted garments (of any brand) to H&M stores globally, which will be recycled and used in future products.

H&M explains that the global ambition is to work towards a “sustainable fashion future”, where unwanted clothes are used for fresh textile fibers and ensure no garments wind up in landfills.

The drive towards sustainability, which has been embraced by everyone at the company – from the CEO to middle management – is an example of how the company has always sought to redefine itself (and save itself from a PR disaster). Much like its products, the global retailer has tried to avoid stasis and remain top of mind for shoppers.

It first introduced online shopping in 1998 when the concept was still nascent, and in the 2000s set on a spree of international expansion, which saw further store openings in Europe, the US, and East Asia.

But central to the strategy of top line growth was the constant addition of new stores. This entailed costs – locations for new outlets need to be scouted, linking the store to a centralized supply chain, hiring staff, and ensuring all brand guidelines are adhered to. Not only does it take time, it can also prevent a fast fashion brand like H&M from trimming prices as much as it would like.

Challenges lurk

Despite H&M’s original launch of its online store in 1998, analysts are unequivocal in their opinion that the company has been slow to adapt to the internet age.

“We view value fashion retailers as the clothing retail segment most disrupted by online,” explains Anne Critchlow, an analyst at Societe Generale.

Digital disruption has eaten into H&M’s business. Pure play fashion ecommerce sites like Asos, Zalando, Zappos, and even Amazon private label brands don’t have to contend with managing expensive offline inventory and retail space. It helps them keep prices low in an attempt to undercut retailers like H&M.

Asos recorded US$2.6 billion in sales last year – a fair distance behind H&M – but the brand operates with a fraction of the same overheads as the Swedish retailer.

Euromonitor International estimates that online channels account for 14% of the global apparel and footwear market, with an overall size of US$231.7 billion. In developed markets, this statistic is even higher: 15.5% for the US, 18.7% for the UK, and 25.9% for China.

H&M is physically present in 69 countries but only offers ecommerce in 43.

The primary target market for fast fashion brands are digitally savvy millennials, which begs the question, why have they been so slow to respond?

CEO of H&M, Karl-Johan Persson says the company has made mistakes in its strategy.

2017 was a disappointing year for the company with its share price sliding to the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis and the announcement that it would close 170 stores in 2018.

But the company plans on a net addition of 220 stores, causing even further consternation from investors who want it to double down on ecommerce and trim expensive offline forays.

“Fast pace is vital,” affirmed Karl last year, signalling H&M’s intention to accelerate its efforts towards ecommerce.

H&M stock isn’t performing well at all.

But this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

“[H&M and Zara] have been lagging definitely and they do need things like just faster delivery times; shoppers want it now,” explains Maureen Hinton, global retail research director at GlobalData. “They face a tougher, more competitive market who have less to spend and far more competition with Zalando, Amazon, and others.”

What’s the future?

At the moment, H&M seems to be concentrating on markets with large growth potential. Its decision to open up new stores in India helped increase revenue in the country by almost 100% and resulted in 12 new outlets. The retailer is also selling online in India, hoping to capitalize on the ecommerce rush in the South Asian state.

But this seems to be a repetition of the old business model, which hasn’t exactly gone to plan. The writing’s on the wall. US retailers are in significant stress as they haven’t prepared for the digital age.

Millennials demand an omni-experience i.e. a consistent experience across both online and offline. Zara, has already picked up on this trend with its popup shop in London trying to bridge the gap, whereas H&M only realized it needed to integrate physical and online stores after a 2% drop in Q3 compared to last year’s figures.

The company is also relying on its presence on Alibaba’s Tmall to improve its online footprint in overseas markets.

It seems like H&M is finally aware of the fact that it needs to improve its overall purchasing experience. Nils Vinge, H&M’s head of investor relations, told LA Times that they’re deploying algorithms to support forecast demand and reduce the chance of markdowns.

But are these feeble attempts enough to survive in the hypercompetitive environment that fast fashion operates in today?

Part of the reason startups like Asos and Zappos have been able to snatch away market share is because millennials care more about the product, and less for brands. 51% have no preference between private label and national brands.

For H&M, it’s not enough anymore to sell relatively cheap products. The entire retail experience needs an overhaul and it better start doing that soon or the stock price might see a sustained nosedive.

Here’s what you should know today.

1. Add Ventures will focus on funding startups in Southeast Asia

Launched last month with total funds of $85 million, Add Ventures is said to be focusing two thirds of the money to fuel startups in Southeast Asia and the rest will be used in Silicon Valley, China, and Israel.

The investment arm of Siam Cement Group (SCG) wants to be the leader in three verticals; industrial, enterprise, and business-to-business (B2B). Their investment range is in between post-seeds and series A.

Over the next year, the firm aims to invest in 25 – 35 startups and in four to five venture capital opportunities.  

Read the full story here.

2. Thailand launches Strategic Talent Center to help private sector in science and tech recruiting

The government continues to show its support to the tech sector by setting up the Strategic Talent Center (STC) that will allows easier access to the available pool of manpower in the field of science and tech sector.

The centre will help identify Thai and foreign nationals with specialised skills across the technology and innovation arena, academia and government scholars, and researchers as well as those under the Talent Mobility Project of National Science Technology and Innovation Policy Office.

STC will also provide expertise recognition services for those in the science and technology fields. All in hope to help drive the country’s ‘Thailand 4.0’ policy.

Read the full story here.

3. Recommended Reading: More brides are looking for lower-price alternatives for their wedding dress.

According to research firm Wedding Report, despite the fact that average spending of a wedding increase to $26,444 in 2014, almost 50% spent no more than $500 for the wedding dress.

54% of women said the designer label on the gown are no longer important for them as they prefer to allocate the money to other aspects of the wedding like venues, or the music.

Indeed, in the Philippines, we have also seen the trend of brides ordering wedding dress online to get a very good deal. In the UK, Asos is launching their first bridal-collection last year which priced lower than $380.

Read the full story here.

Here’s what you need to know today.

1. Alibaba makes its move in Indonesia, partners Emtek on mobile payments

Alibaba’s Ant Financial has locked in a partnership with Indonesian media conglomerate Emtek. Together, they’ll launch a new mobile payments product as well as other financial services.

The payments solution will be offered on Blackberry Messenger (BBM), which is operated by an Emtek subsidiary and has 63 million monthly active users in Indonesia. 

Emtek is turning BBM into much more than just a chat app. It allows people to shop, play games, watch videos, and more.

Read the rest of the story here

2. Amazon gets a wallet license in India

Amazon India has received permission to run a wallet license in India, becoming one of the 84 companies authorised by the Reserve Bank of India to operate payment licenses.

The wallet will probably be linked to Amazon Pay, which Amazon introduced in India last December, although then it was seen as a rebranding of its gift cards business.

A one-click payment option doesn’t work in India without a wallet

Amazon also offers customers faster refunds with Amazon Pay, within 24 hours. Storing money in the wallet will help Amazon ensure that the money is spend on Amazon directly, and also allows it to offer cashbacks on purchases to wallets.

Read the rest of the story here.

 

3. Recommended Reading: Closing shop on China’s online platforms

The online store closures of a number of retail and luxury brand giants indicate that the competition is no less fierce online.

The closure of Lotte’s Tmall store seems to have stemmed from the fact that China is Lotte’s only international market where growth is stymying. Sales fell during the last three months of 2016, year-on-year. ASOS, the UK’s largest online fashion retailer, entered China in 2013 with high expectations but announced its closure in April 2016 due to a running loss of 4 million GBP.

Companies looking to take advantage of China’s market size and sell to Chinese consumers often mistakenly believe that ecommerce offers a shortcut to success because there are fewer licensing requirements to operate through ecommerce, and customs clearance is faster.

However, as high-profile store closures in 2016 demonstrate, ecommerce requires extensive pre-entry knowledge of regulations, a realistic logistics plan, and a local marketing strategy.

Read the rest of the story here.

Here are the headlines you should know for today.

1. Digital currencies are here to stay

Financial institutions in Indonesia should brace themselves as cryptocurrency is gaining popularity in the largest economy in Southeast Asia with no intention of slowing down.

Bitcoin Indonesia currently has 250,000 members, up from 80,000 at the end of 2015, with a daily transaction value of Rp 20 billion ($1.48 million).

The presence of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin or EDinar Coin, could help support the Indonesian government’s plan to create a cashless society.

Read the rest of the story here.

 

2. Recommended Reading: What every entrepreneur should know about doing business in Bangkok

This is a fairly universal concept, but takes on new meaning in the developing world and Thailand in particular. “Right now there are more investors than there are builders in Southeast Asia, that’s crazy!” Says Paul Srivorakul, founder and CEO at aCommerce.

‘You need to build local and defensible.’

Read the rest of his interview here

 

3. Social media boosts success of e-tailer Asos

Asos is continually future-proofing the business, ensuring it can cope with increased demand as it expands globally. The strong growth in international sales, particularly in the US as a result of the weak pound, means Asos will have to keep up with order fulfillment as the retailer expands.

Part of the reason behind the consistent Asos success is the way it successfully targets customers with creative email and social media marketing on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. The retailer also offers attractive delivery options such as Asos Premier.

Read the rest of the story here.