Pricey Singapore: Savvy shoppers go online

Dhara Ranasinghe - Special to
Shoppers wait at a pedestrian junction to cross a road, in Singapore,
Munshi Ahmed | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For busy business development and marketing manager Regina Chow, fashion is a passion that has become easier to pursue thanks to the growth of online shopping.

"I do about 80 percent of my shopping online because I spend the bulk of my time working on my laptop and online shopping suits my lifestyle," says Chow, a Singaporean national whose "Shopping Queen's Haven" blog won best fashion blog at this year's Singapore Blog Awards.

"Online shopping is convenient, fuss-free and stress-free as I am not restrained by the official retail hours of brick and mortar stores," she adds. "The best part is I don't have to lug heavy shopping bags on the go. Don't even get me started on how exciting it is to receive packages in the mail."

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The 32-year old falls into the 25 to 44 age group of Singaporeans that most frequently shop online, according to Visa, the world's largest credit and debit card firm. A recent Visa study found that 26 percent of Singaporeans shop online at least once a week – the highest in Southeast Asia.

And analysts say that with mobile phone apps that allow consumers to hunt for bargains anytime in a city that is ranked most expensive in the world, the potential for growth in the online retail sector cannot be underestimated.

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"While it does not come as a surprise that Singaporeans are Southeast Asia's top online shoppers, it is equally important to note that there is still huge potential for growth of e-commerce in Singapore," said Martell Hardenberg, CEO of Lazada Singapore.

Lazada, also known as "Asia's Amazon" for its online offerings of electronics, toys and other general items was founded almost three years ago and is one online retailer that has made headway in Singapore in recent years. Others include fashion website Zalora and online grocerRedMart.

There is 19 percent year-on-year growth in e-commerce transactions performed by Visa cardholders in the city, Visa Country Manager for Singapore and Brunei Ooi Huey Tyng was quoted in the local media last month as saying.

Latest data for overall retails sales in Singapore shows growth of 5.5 percent on-year in September. That number falls to 0.6 percent growth when motor vehicle sales are stripped out.

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"Consumer spending has generally been subdued for bricks and mortar stores and the overall numbers don't really capture the trend of online shopping," said Hak Bin Chua, Asean economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Cost conscious

Economists say that relatively high costs in Singapore help explain the popularity of online shopping in the city. These include high labor and rent for bricks and mortar retailers that then pass on those costs to consumers.

"The cost of living is rising; consumers are just trying to get a better bang for their buck and online shopping allows that," Chua said.

A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year ranked Singapore the most expensive city in the world to live in.

"I buy online, using U.K. sites because primarily the price is cheaper and it is easier to get everything in one place," said Faith, a British national who lives in Singapore, preferring to give just her first name.

"Going to the different malls in Singapore does cost a lot if you are parking a car or using a taxi. With the likes of [British department store] John Lewis offering free shipping, with the goods arriving in four days, these are a real bonus. Also if you don't order too much, you don't need to pay the GST (general sales tax)," she added, referring to Singapore's 7 percent general sales tax.

Other major retailers also offer incentives to Asian shoppers. Online shopping giant Amazon for instance delivers free to Singapore on purchases above $125 (S$165).

Even with the rapid take-off online shopping in the Southeast Asian financial hub, economists say they see sufficient consumer spending to bolster both the online and physical retail sectors.

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"The Singapore market is strong because of the regional market. I was on Orchard Road the other day and you do see new shops opening up," said Seng Wun Song, a Singapore-based regional economist at CIMB, referring to the city's most famous shopping district.

Tech smart city

Nevertheless, competition from and within the online sector is likely to be fierce especially thanks to technology, say experts.

"Part of the success of e-commerce in Singapore lies in the advanced infrastructure, including access to a 4G network, that facilitates the rapid adoption of mobile shopping, allowing consumers to shop on the go," said Lazada's Hardenberg.

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"Interestingly, more than 50 percent of purchases made on Lazada's website in Singapore are from mobile devices and we anticipate this figure to grow further," he added.

According to a study published in November by Google, Singapore leads the world in terms of smartphone usage and engagement at 85 percent, beating South Korea at 80 percent.

Blogger Chow says net-a-porter and Shopbop are among the mobile phone apps she uses for shopping.

"Nowadays, most online stores have mobile-friendly websites as well, which makes shopping a breeze," she said. "Social media platforms such as Instagram have also become immensely popular in Singapore and it is interesting to note that there are a growing number of Instagram accounts that operate as shops selling fashion apparel, shoes and designer bags."

And so it seems that in a country, famous for its love shopping, the opportunities for online retail are perhaps endless.