By Low Teck Mee
The one appeal of our increasingly digital life is its immateriality. We listen to music, watch movies, and view photographs by playing files. We read—assuming there is still appeal in that—on an e-reader or phablet. We ask for paperless bank statements, movie tickets, and boarding passes. We organise social events and put out invitations on Facebook; we even request the company of our friends at our wedding with e-invites! The Cloud, where we now store so many of these possessions, has practically de-materialised our very material world. Even the “cold hard cash” that Madonna once happily sang about is meaningless with the advent of Paypal and Apple Pay. Yet, ironically, it is online that we’re acquiring and purchasing very material things.
In a virtual vastness pregnant with products, limited offerings in real-world destinations such as Orchard Road look decidedly dull. Fact is, no one can negate that online shopping has adversely (and triumphantly) affected Singapore’s major shopping stretch. What’s disheartening is that Orchard Road is not seriously fighting back. While it (still) laments that there’s a dire lack of shoppers looking beyond shop windows, cyberspace is bursting with stores that out-stock, out-thrill, and out-sell the busiest spot on what we’re persuaded to believe is “a great street”.
The call to shop is never more strident online. Our in-boxes and timelines are constantly besieged with messages, ads, and links to sites that help us navigate the infinite, yet crowded, online marketplace, never mind if we do not frequently end up on the landing pages. Amid the many sites and those exasperatingly pertinacious, one stands out: ShopandBox. Here’s not your average choose-click-buy platform. ShopandBox does not offer products per se. Instead, it connects you to stuff specified by you in a store/place/city stated by you. Subsequently, an actual—not virtual—personal shopper will do the buying and “boxing” (since these are mostly not digitisable products) on your behalf. It does, therefore, appear that many, many things are within your reach. ShopandBox looks poised to ring the death knell for Orchard Road.
I did not explore the three-year-old ShopandBox until recently, and it was pleasure from first click, just like playing Pokemon Go for the first time (even if that initial encounter now seems such a long time back). Sure, it is hard to be readily lured to ShopandBox’s prosaic name, but if you shouldn’t judge a book by its e-cover, you should not assess a site’s appeal by what it’s called. No one will blame you for mistaking it as a storage service for your shopping. However, once you’ve entered their conversely more appealing, vaguely Kinfolk-ish portal, you’ll be so caught up with the seemingly endless possibilities that you’ll forget there’s laundry to be done and the baby to be fed.
Personally, I have not been getting retail kicks by clicking on “add to cart”, which seems to me a description of an act that’s evocative of a rural way of life, but I can see that e-commerce, specifically B2C (business to consumer) transactions, is not only burgeoning, it’s virtually exploding. Pervasive media reports inform me that by the end of this year, worldwide B2C online sales will reach USD1.92 trillion. Staggering figure considering that small-fry I probably contribute only 0.001% to that sum.
To my delight, ShopandBox employs a “submit order” button. But before you get there, there’s shopping to be done. The site spells the procedure in four, straightforward steps. There are, in fact, only three since the last won’t be done by you. To make things easier, especially for repeat and seasoned visitors, there’s a box on the homepage where you can request for what you already know you want and the system will do the rest. And rather swiftly too.
ShopandBox touts itself as a site for “global personal shopping”. Two words there jump at you: “global” and “personal”. You can really shop for almost anything, anywhere—28 countries, so far (discount all of Africa though)—and someone on the other side will pick the items up for you. Yes, it’s really having a living and breathing person run your errand (the Chinese have an excellent word for it: paotui or 跑腿, literally running legs). But those doing your bidding are not known as ‘shoppers’, since you, in front of your notebook or smartphone, are already the shopper. Instead, they’re known as ‘boxers’, which sounds like inductees of a fight club, but it makes sense since it is they who are the ones to box your purchases for shipping.
Co-founders of ShopandBox, Rebecca Chia and Tai Xin Lung
The husband-and-wife team of Tai Xin Lung and Rebecca Chia (a Malaysian and Singaporean working out of Melbourne!) that dreamed up the idea for ShopandBox started by deploying those they know as boxers. “All of us have, at some point, asked our overseas friends to buy and send stuff to us,” Mr Tai said. “So we thought: why not develop this into an online service? We started the business by using our family and friends just as we had before.” These have since grown into a network of boxers around the world. Unlike shopping sites such as Qoo10, where anonymous handlers (and sellers) process your order, ShopandBox assigns a boxer to you. As your boxer—including a former beauty queen in the US—is known to you, some trust in the transaction can be established.
This one-to-one approach adds a personal touch to a normally cold and anonymous deal. When boxers are unsure if they have the right item, for instance, they could take a picture of the product and send to you for approval. If you need suggestions, the boxer could also offer them. In fact, some of the listed boxers have “recommendations” that you could browse through. What I find especially appealing is that you could also request for the boxer to go to a specific store in the city where they’re based to buy exactly the item you already have in mind. That could avail to you product releases specific to a certain country, which means you could be wearing or using something not available here.
ShopandBox , in fact, goes beyond their perfunctory name. For popular items, such as the Playstation VR, they offer price comparison across five cities (cheaper in the US than in Japan—who would have thought?!). This can be found in the page called The Blog, where a host of ideas and suggestions can be found in the form of articles. Okay, the writing is not exactly the stuff of the Pulitzer Prize, but it does get you going, or, in the case of the city guides, in a mood for shopping.
To me, the biggest appeal of ShopandBox is the freedom and flexibility it affords when shopping online. You start with knowing already what you want. Nothing is curated for you; well at least not when you don’t need it. And you’re not confronted with a mind-boggling array of merchandise. This is not Taobao, the gaudy online pasar malam that bombards you with so much that you do not know where to start. This is not Net-A-Porter, a site that many consider the “ultimate shopping destination”—now seducing you wih an e-mag on its homepage to better showcase its wares. This is not Luisaviaroma, with their categories and themes. This is not Amazon, which seem unable to completely shake off their bookseller image. This is not Farfetch, again just scores of merchandise even if they fetch from afar. ShopandBox may yet go to the end of the earth, but they have boxers in places distant enough to bridge desire and the desired.
When asked what’s next for ShopandBox or what is done so that it won’t be a convenient stop for the mundane, Mr Tai said, “We hope to grow the number of more sophisticated customers, not just the 18 to 25 year-olds.” Could this mean that the older, more affluent shopper isn’t embracing online shopping with the same fervour as the young?
With the world’s merchandise a click away, it is irrefutable that fewer people are doing their shopping on Orchard Road; fewer still the older consumer. The overall figures continue to look bleak. According to a May report in The Straits Times, retailers were raking in 3.2% less in February when compared to the same period last year (not that it was better then). If you exclude motor vehicle sales, the drop was even steeper: 9.6%. More than six months later, the situation does not seem to have improved. Orchard Road, I hate to say, ShopandBox is here to stay… and slay.
ShopandBox mobile app is available on Google Play and Apple App Store. Photos: Zhao Xiangji