E-stores unlock a wider world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 February, 2012, 12:00am


Shopping for homeware is akin to buying clothes. Would you commit without seeing the item in person, feeling its finish and judging 'in the flesh' whether it will be the right fit, either for your figure or your living room?

People are doing both. Shopping online for household kit is the retail story of our time, and it's far bigger than home-delivered groceries.

'Shopping online is about to explode,' Forbes reported last year, adding that retailers were expanding their product range, offering incentives such as free shipping and experimenting with social media as they reinvented how we shop.

Although conservatives among us may still prefer to connect with our homeware in a mutually agreeable 'let's go back to my place' kind of way, designers love the online action.

Suzy Annetta, of Studio Annetta, views e-commerce as an antidote to the 'tragically meagre' design resources available in Hong Kong.

'I often shop for myself, purchasing anything from large pieces of furniture to small household things, as well as for clients,' she says.

Annetta particularly loves the availability of vintage pieces in the worldwide marketplace.

'Hong Kong is notoriously bad for vintage,' she laments. She eagerly studies the weekly updates from www.1stdibs.com, and is able to secure hard-to-find collectibles from designers around the world.

'Michael Bruno, the founder [of 1stdibs], has put the Paris flea markets online for everyone to access, and has since added vintage dealers all over Europe and the US,' Annetta says. 'It's a wonderful resource for vintage and antique furniture, artworks, couture and now real estate. I have bought pieces from this site for myself several times in the past few years. Their online magazine is great, too, and it's a good way for people to educate themselves about vintage design, if that's what they're into.'

Nathalie Edwards, founder and creative director of Life Styling (www.lifestylingltd.com), has tested the e-shopping waters in the last 18 months. Like Annetta, Edwards says she has 'never had a problem' with any of the goods received.

On occasion, she has bought items simply not available in Hong Kong - like an outdoor pool table Edwards sourced and had shipped from the US after seeing one in a friend's house. She has also bought Marcel Breuer's Wassily chairs online, and storm lanterns and mirrors from Ralph Lauren.

For her, websites also fill a void in the local design scene. 'In Hong Kong, I find you can get very low-end and very high-end products, but the gap in between is enormous. Online sites allow us to find things that are a bit different.'

Candace Campos (www.candacecollective.com) agrees. 'I shop online for vintage pieces that can't be sourced in Hong Kong. It's a great way to add character to a space,' the interior designer says.

Although not every online outlet ships to Hong Kong, some shoppers use go-between companies and say it has been successful. 'We use UPS to ship a lot of goods or Jet-Speed and Shipito,' Edwards says.

Annetta has found My American Shopper (www.myamericanshopper.com) good for buying from US retailers that won't ship outside the States. 'The website is great, and you can log on and track the package. It can be a little pricey, but I think it's worth it if it's something you desperately want and would have no other way of getting it to Hong Kong,' she says.

Choice is only one factor driving online business. The product may not be commercially available elsewhere, or be cheaper than in a bricks-and-mortar store. Briton Robin Beaumont, for example, founded an online manchester store, Sleep Naked! (www.sleepnaked.com), as a spin-off from his business supplying the leading hotels of the world.

'The website was set up after people called us asking to purchase various products they had experienced in hotels,' says Beaumont, who ships high-quality sheets, towels and duvets to customers in Britain, Hong Kong, the mainland and Singapore. 'As far as we know, there are no other retailers that can honestly say they also supply five-star hotels.'

By Beaumont's estimate, manchester of comparable quality would cost twice as much in a department store. Australian sites Only Online (www.oo.com.au) and Deals Direct (www.dealsdirect.com.au) tout huge discounts because they don't have the physical overheads.

But armchair shoppers may still encounter middlemen. Dotcom entrepreneurs make profits, too, so don't expect a retailer's mark-up to necessarily be slashed. A survey around Christmas time by US site Cheapism (cheapism.com) found that for a basket of 41 gift items, Walmart was cheaper than Amazon.com. A colleague lugged home a Finnish-designed fireplace from her travels, later to see it at almost twice the price at a Hong Kong shop that also sells online.

Still, you can at least compare prices with a click of the mouse. American designer Rob Forbes founded Design Within Reach (www.dwr.com) after he tried to furnish his US apartment with the clean, simple classics he'd come to appreciate while living in London. He had discovered that the works of Saarinen, Eames, Bertoia and other designers were beyond the reach of those who 'did not know the secret handshake'. So Forbes decided to bring high design to the public, with full transparency of age, provenance and price.

How about returning something to a virtual store? Edwards tried out the refund policy of one of her favourite online stores, www.net-a-porter.com, a clothing retailer that has started to sell homeware, and found the process easy. Annetta has heard 'no horror stories' about people's bad experiences with online shopping. But it's certainly a case of buyer beware.

Blogs tell tales of disappointment when an item turns out to be smaller than imagined, or the quality is lacking, or it doesn't fit the intended space.

Ergo, a savvy online shopper will pay attention to details such as dimensions, condition report (if pre-loved), delivery terms and the seller's return policy. Be diligent about asking questions - especially in the case of vintage items, for which one person's expectation may not be another's. If it's a site you haven't used before, it's a good idea to e-mail the supplier first - in Annetta's experience, their initial responsiveness is telling. 'It all comes down to doing your homework,' she says.

So where do the designers shop online? Apart from 1stdibs, Annetta calls Couture Lab (www.couturelab.com) 'a great online resource. It's mostly high-end, one-off and unique pieces created specifically for the site', she says.

Edwards shops at Blanc d'Ivoirie (www.blancdivoire.com) for 'great French-style furniture and home accessories', and Horchow (www.horchow.com) for 'good quality, beautiful pieces'. She also recommends One Kings Lane (www.onekingslane.com) for an interesting range of furniture and accessories, often at competitive prices, and Net-a-Porter for small accessories such as quirky throw pillows.

Candace Campos uses eBay to find 'any quirky piece you dream of'; Etsy (www.etsy.com) is 'great for handmade one-of-a-kind items' ; and Fab.com to bag great deals. 'All of the above can provide international shipping,' she says.

Hardtofind (www.hardtofind.com.au) offers luxurious, hand-crafted 'finds' for the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, office, garden and dining area. Founded by two Australian entrepreneurs, the site doesn't ship to Hong Kong but could be a great resource for expats to send gifts back home.

If all this seems a bit impersonal, e-commerce vendors are working to change that, too.

Design Within Reach has introduced an online 3-D modelling tool that enables shoppers to visually sample furniture and accessories in their space. You simply upload blueprints of your interior space to the 3-D room planner, and the store's in-house designers will convert it into a workable floor plan within a few hours. Then you can play, altering the colours, patterns and dimensions to create an interior scheme that 'speaks' to you. Sweet.