According to an oft-cited report by the state-owned investment arm Temasek Holdings and tech giant Google, the internet economy in Southeast Asia is estimated to amount to a whopping US$200 billion by 2025.
It’s unsurprising that the region is attracting the attention of e-commerce behemoths like Alibaba and Amazon. With one of the highest internet penetration rates (82 percent) in the region, Singapore has become the jumping-off point for these companies to make their foray into the region.
Amazon started with rolling out Prime Now, its two-hour delivery service, while Alibaba made headlines starting with its US$1 billion investment in Lazada, followed by further rounds of investments and a collaboration with Lazada to launch Taobao Collection in Singapore.
These strategies are poised to create wide-reaching impacts on the local industry. Singaporeans are savvy, value-conscious consumers, and Taobao has long been a popular choice among local shoppers. Its entry into the local market through “Taobao Collection” on Lazada means that shoppers can now skip over third party sites to gain easy access to an influx of international competitors with low-cost products.
As such, local businesses need to adapt quickly to the shift in competitive landscape. While competing on price is a futile attempt, businesses can implement strategies that fill in the gaps where Chinese e-retailers fail to address – such as providing unique, curated products and high quality offerings.
Below, we’ll delve into tried-and-tested strategies you can implement to rise above the competition. Let’s begin:
 Build your brand
A strong brand image and engagement with the community are key factors for standing out in a highly competitive e-commerce landscape.
Love, Bonito co-founder Rachel Lim sums up the importance of effective branding succinctly in an interview with LadyBoss: “While our competitors can copy our marketing campaigns, our strategies, our look and feel, photos and such, they can never take away our connection with our customers”.
Businesses can certainly take a leaf out of Love, Bonito’s books when it comes to building a brand identity and engagement. The brand has successfully garnered 141,000 followers on Instagram, over 166,000 Facebook likes and a community of loyal shoppers who snap up newly launched pieces within hours of its release.
Engaging consumers across a variety of touchpoints is key. Beyond its well-curated social media channels and online interaction with users, the brand runs focus groups on a regular basis to gather feedback and better understand their needs. Love, Bonito has also expanded beyond providing an online shopping experience to setting up pop-up stores in order to build a physical impression with its customers, as well as improve customer loyalty and the brand experience for its users.
And in partnering up with leading couture designers like Tex Saverio and Julien Fournié, Love, Bonito managed to gain exposure to a wider market, garner industry recognition through winning fashion awards and seal its status as a trendsetting brand that makes haute couture accessible to its community.
 Focus on providing premium products and experiences
Shopping on Taobao comes with the risk of purchasing items that are counterfeit, show up damaged or look nothing like it did online. Often, shoppers need to put in due diligence in checking multiple reviews and security features before making a purchase.
This has given rise to a growing demand for e-retailers that offer high-quality products that consumers can trust. While one can purchases a sofa set for just S$70 on Taobao, businesses like OhHappyFry draw in consumers with its carefully curated selection of homeware accessories – each of which has been vetted by founder Rae Yun.
The same attention to quality should extend beyond your product offerings to encompass other consumer touchpoints. How can you delight your consumers, starting from the moment where they visit your online store till when they receive your products? The devil lies in the details, so having detailed product descriptions, prompt delivery times, convenient return policies and well-thought-out packaging can make all the difference.
Take vegan skincare brand Balm Kitchen as an example. The brand uses PET, BPA-free and recyclable packaging – something that strikes a chord with its community of green, eco-friendly consumers. And in the age of digitalisation, businesses like bespoke florist Beverly’s Blooms stand out by sending out handwritten notes, which are delivered along with its bouquets. Says owner Min Young: “The notes are just two sentences, but they can change everything.”
 Do your homework before settling on a niche market
Choosing a profitable niche for your e-commerce venture is tricky business. Zac Heisey, former Director of Digital Marketing at Tribe Interactive shared that a common mistake e-commerce entrepreneurs often make is to carry out insufficient research and pre-planning. As a result, these businesses wind up delving into a niche market that’s either too broad or too narrow.
He suggests: “Do your homework, find out what subsets of larger niches exist that may be underserved, and determine if there is a market there to sustain e-commerce business growth.”
Online startup Naiise is a great example of a business that has successfully tapped into a niche market with growth potential. A one-stop shop for affordable designer goods, Naiise stocks a diverse array of products ranging from homeware to artisanal gourmet items and fashion wear.
The online platform was developed when founder Dennis Tay spotted a market gap between luxury designer goods and cheap, mass-produced products. Tay elaborates: “When I started, most people were only buying products at the two extreme ends of the scale. It was either your LVMH, your Prada or your Gucci, a status-symbol product to prove you could afford it, without understanding its heritage, or really cheap, mass-manufactured things that people could get at any market. The hard part was working out how I was going to find something in the middle.”
Even after settling on a niche, it takes constant reinvention to tap on new opportunities and emerging trends. Tay recently shared that the company is looking to dive into a new niche: the artisanal movement, where products are made in small batches by hand. This looks to be a promising market for Naiise given that artisanal food is a fairly new concept in Singapore, and locally produced food and beauty products are the fastest-growing sections of their website.
 Stay hands-on with business finances
Small business owners often need to juggle multiple demands; in any given day, there are pressing operational, marketing and business concerns to handle – and financial issues may take a back seat.
Here are three tips to help you keep your finances on track:
- Keep a close watch on your cash flow:
When it comes to updating your cash flow projections, Blaine Bertsch, CEO of financial forecasting software Dryrun advises making updates “every time something happens in your business that affects your cash flow”. For example, if you’re sending out an invoice, or have information that a payment is coming in late, you’ll need to update your projections accordingly to reflect these changes.
Entrepreneur Bill D’Alessandro learnt this the hard way when his business faced a cash crunch in its early stages of operation. In an interview with eCommerceFuel, a community for independent e-commerce merchants, he shared about how he had to create a spreadsheet with daily cash flow projections when he outgrew his cash during a business growth spurt. Says D’Alessandro of his experience: “Don’t think that if you’re having a cash crunch it means you’re doing something wrong. Or don’t think that if your business is growing you’re not gonna have a cash crunch.”
Beyond regular updates, carve out time each month for an in-depth review of your cash flow. This will help you plan ahead for potential shortfalls in the coming months, and identify periods where you may need financial support. It’s best to gather your colleagues or partners for the review, so that you can be sure that everyone is aligned with the cash flow situation, and can contribute towards making monthly projections for the next quarter or half-year.
- Take control of supplier costs:
Similar to your cash flow review processes, it’s just as important to revisit your supplier agreements on a regular basis. In doing so, you may discover new ways of organising your operational workflow to improve efficiency, or negotiate for a lower rate if you’re facing a growing sales volume.
- Strategic merchandising is key:
With continual changes in pricing and the competitive landscape, monitoring your margins needs to be an ongoing activity so you can stay up-to-date on higher-margin categories and promptly weed out lower-margin products. Depending on your business needs, you may considering conducting a margin analysis on a per-month or per-quarter basis.
These can all be a lot to remember. To recap, here’s a quick round up of the strategies we’ve discussed in the article:
- Brand building is key: Look beyond online interactions to engage consumers across multiple touchpoints. Pay close attention to listen to what your customers are saying through community building activities and running focus groups.
- Premium products and experiences: A top-notch experience goes beyond your product to encompass other consumer touchpoints, like packaging and communication. Through brand building and focusing on delivering top-notch experiences, you’ll be better placed to sell higher margin products – thus gaining a competitive edge over Taobao sellers, as they typically adopt a low-price, low-margin strategy.
- Conduct in-depth research before settling on a niche market: While researching on a potential niche markets, consider key questions such as: What are subsets of larger niches that exist that may be underserved? Is there a market to sustain e-commerce business growth?
- Stay hands-on with business finances: Keep a close watch on your finances through reviewing your cash flow, reviewing supplier costs and conducting a margin analysis on a regular basis.