TEO REN FENG: You’ve mentioned that you are interested in seeking out lesser-known destinations when travelling.
ALWYN CHONG: I always have photography in mind when I travel, and my latest obsession is Africa.
REN FENG: How often do you go there?
ALWYN: Annually, for the last 3 years. It started off with a safari trip in 2008, where I met a guy who became a friend. We’ve decided to do expeditions together, and just had our first trip in June . We crossed the Okavango Delta—which is the largest inland delta in Africa, by canoeing 400km from the top to the bottom of the delta. It took us 15 days. We intend to do 10 expeditions in the next 10 years, and I will publish a photo journal every year.
REN FENG: Was it luxury travel? Like glamping.
ALWYN: No. I’m not a fan of glamping. You get necessities like a tent and a bedroll plus someone who cooks for you, but the rest of it is camping. I think the whole point of going to the outdoors and experiencing nature is to get away from it all.
REN FENG: Is it WiFi-free?
ALWYN: Yes. Most of my holidays are WiFi-free. I try to do that or else you end up checking your e-mails and even though you say you’re not working, you have already read the e-mails, and it’s on your mind. Everyone needs to disconnect once in a while. So when I travel to cities for work, I don’t make any holiday plans there.
REN FENG: I quite enjoy the urban shots featured on your photography site.
ALWYN: I normally take a few photos when I have some time off during a work trip. I bring my Leica when I go for a walk.
REN FENG: Have you ever considered another field or career? Was joining the family business a given?
ALWYN: We were never forced into it. I’ve been working in the Luxasia since I was nine, and it was a natural progression. I guess if I really considered doing something else, it might be Law because it’s multi-faceted and you always have to put forth your point and look at a situation from many angles.
REN FENG: What was your major in university?
ALWYN: Philosophy and economics. I did philosophy because I loved it, and economics because my studies needed to sound “useful”. [laughs] But I’m more interested in the aesthetic side of things like design, which is why I invested in Gallery & Co. and Foreign Policy Design Group.
REN FENG: What are the unique challenges of running a multi-concept store like Gallery & Co.?
ALWYN: I cover retail and purchasing, and multi-brand concept stores are difficult because you have to carry a wide range of products without overstocking while watching your cash flow. I guess that’s where the difficulty is, especially if you don’t have a strong concept.
Beautiful things make people feel great. If they’re beautiful and also functional, that’s an even bigger bonus.
REN FENG: How do you keep it coherent?
ALWYN: It is difficult. Our mission statement is, “Better Lives through Design”, and we try to make sure that everything we do helps to better somebody’s life—with a design aspect to it. Beautiful things make people feel great. If they’re beautiful and also functional, that’s an even bigger bonus.
REN FENG: Is Gallery & Co. all that you wanted it to be?
ALWYN: We really wanted to be at the forefront of design, so we looked at very niche design ideas and products. However, we have come to understand that not everybody appreciates that. We’ve had to adapt to the economic climate and cater to what the customer wants like souvenirs and locally-created products. We’ve always supported local, and now with a stronger focus than before.
REN FENG: Is the market here not as progressive as what you might find in London or New York?
ALWYN: Our base, or even the tourist crowd, is not large enough. In London, you have a constant flow of people and they’re purchasing items because people aspire to visit certain places and leave with a memento. We’re not quite there yet, but I believe that it has to be cultivated. Escentials struggled when we first started and for many years, it was simply a labour of love with no profit. We got frustrated when shoppers were buying perfumes for the free gifts or brand association, as we wanted people to buy perfumes for the unique relationship that it has with each person’s skin and personality. Thankfully, we’ve stayed the course and it’s paying off right now. Gallery & Co. probably faces the same journey, but we’re in it for the long-haul. I’m tired of hearing, “Oh, the MOMA store…” Where is the Singapore equivalent? MOMA didn’t become MOMA in a day, and we’re hoping someday we’ll be up there with them. You just have to persevere.
REN FENG: Persevering out of passion.
ALWYN: You should do everything out of passion, no? If it is purely an investment and it doesn’t make money, then you’ll think, “fine”, and close it down. But with passion and purpose, you stay the course and find a way. Not all business models work from the beginning. It’s about finding out which part is not working and improving on it.
Always remain true to your purpose, if not, don't do it.
REN FENG: You seem to be driven by single-minded determination.
ALWYN: Always remain true to your purpose, if not, don't do it. Find a purpose, make sure of it, and then go on to achieve it. Because that’s really what life is about. If you ask a lot of people what is their purpose, I don’t think many people have an answer. It probably changes at different stages of life, but I’ve asked many people and they don’t know.
REN FENG: It is a tough question.
ALWYN: It is. Sometimes people have given me answers like “to provide for my family.” And I’m like: Really? You mean that’s your purpose in life? There must be a higher purpose than that…
REN FENG: Surely it depends on the individual.
ALWYN: Some people might feel that their purpose in life is to make others happy, and providing for their family helps them fulfil that. But it has to be a higher, loftier ideal than just actionable stuff. If you have that, then you’ve got meaning in life.
REN FENG: What’s yours then?
ALWYN: I really enjoy sharing ideas that help people see things from a different perspective. I find it very intriguing and interesting if my different viewpoint can open up possibilities for someone. When I have conversations with people, I like to push their boundaries and seed ideas to influence them to see things differently.
If I agree with you on everything, nothing new is going to happen. But if I disagree, it forces you to look at things differently and find another solution.
REN FENG: Do you like to play the devil’s advocate?
ALWYN: Yes, I do… sometimes. [smiles] I believe that a lot more comes out of debate and discourse than from agreement. If I agree with you on everything, nothing new is going to happen. But if I disagree, it forces you to look at things differently and find another solution—I think that’s how ideas come about.
REN FENG: You mentioned previously in an interview that themed visual merchandising will play a big role in the future. Do you think presentation counts for everything?
ALWYN: I think so, for sure.
REN FENG: Is it just for retail?
ALWYN: People should also take pride in how they present themselves—in terms of how they look and their living space. Experiences are so important these days. [Gestures at Gallery & Co. store and its Christmas-themed decoration of fresh evergreens dangling from the ceiling] Some people might tell me, “Oh, this garden thing makes the place so dark and difficult to shop.” But sometimes it’s just about the experience and if the store is the same all the time, it’s not engaging at all. I think ‘experiences’ are what consumers seek now, especially in retail environments.
REN FENG: Escentials is seeing stronger than market average growth, in spite of the soft economy. Besides better engagement with your customers, like the recent redo of the Paragon outlet, what other steps are you taking to maintain sales?
ALWYN: We’ve tried to make our Paragon store more welcoming and our price points now go all the way down to $30, which in the past couldn’t have gotten you anything in the store. We started as a luxury perfume boutique and because we were niche and exclusive, skincare and beauty brands approached us to carry their products. But the world is changing and the way I see it, nobody’s interested in buying something just because it’s expensive. It’s really about what’s good and on-trend, so we’re turning away from luxury to become a store that simply curates the best for our customers.
REN FENG: What is Escentials’ plan in the next 5 years?
ALWYN: Our focus will be on growing our digital presence, consumer behaviour, and marketplaces. The way the retail market is going, people are going to buy a lot of stuff online. And those who position themselves with the right kind of curated products with a sizable customer base, are going to win. Once you have the platform, you can sell anything. Look at Tmall and Alibaba. They built the platform, found their customers, and now they can sell anything they want—from diapers to cars.
REN FENG: So Escentials will be focusing on becoming an online retail platform?
ALWYN: How we shop is changing rapidly. Personally, I don’t even go into a store—I buy everything online. So, instead of being loyal to just one fashion or cosmetic brand, customers are loyal to platforms. For example, I like MR PORTER because of its quality curation, so I choose to shop with them. If Escentials can offer transparency and efficient last-mile fulfilment to our customers, it means that they will eventually trust that we are the best source for whatever they wish to buy. We want to be part of the customer’s decision-making process and not simply be a supplier, hence we’re investing a lot in beauty and tech.
REN FENG: Is it slightly late to join the online game now?
ALWYN: Online retail is only around 2% of the market in South East Asia right now. It’s relatively small compared to the U.S. or China, though I expect it to grow to 10 to 15% here. Also, the perfume and beauty industry has been fortunate because it’s been buffered a little by the rise of online retail. You still need to go into the store to test products because you’re unlikely to buy something new without knowing what it smells like, though you might make all your repurchases online. A majority of our business will still be done in brick-and-mortar stores, and we’re looking to integrate online retail operations across countries. Basically, it means creating a digital ecosystem that allows our customers to be connected anywhere, seamlessly, both on and offline, and wherever they travel since we’re based in 11 countries. We’ll probably tie up with companies like Airbnb or Uber to provide more experiences in other areas.
REN FENG: How has the changing consumer journey and market affected Luxasia, which is one of the region’s most established beauty distributors?
ALWYN: The internet has made it easy for brands to reach the consumer directly. As traditional middleman, distributors have to stay relevant or run the risk of becoming extinct. We’ve pivoted our business and are working with brands to make things more efficient than before, and our first focus is to become Asia’s beauty omni-leader. What we’ll be is a plug-and-play beauty platform for brands around the world, so if anyone wants access to the Asia-Pacific region, we are able to customise the brand’s experience for their customers. Whether they go online to Luxasia.com (which is in the works), or Lazada, or Sephora, we will provide a cost-efficient integrated solution for them across the Asia-Pacific region.
REN FENG: Is Luxasia moving into Japan, South Korea and Australia?
ALWYN: We’re looking into it.
REN FENG: These are competitive and established markets. What opportunities do you see for Luxasia?
ALWYN: There are still a lot of opportunities available online, and also in countries where distributors have refused to innovate. A lot of companies are not surviving the current climate and it’s also come to a point where they have no succession plan in place for their key leadership roles. Changes due to the poor economy, handover issues, and the way the industry works present opportunities for us to enter.
Nowadays, it is about managing change rather than risk.
REN FENG: Do you feel that you are managing risk fast enough to deal with sudden disruptive change?
ALWYN: We’re taking steps to ensure that we’re flexible and agile. Nowadays, it is about managing change rather than risk. Risk will always be there, in whatever you do. To acknowledge and be ready for change whenever the time comes is important. Change is happening exponentially, and a 50-year transition period, now only takes 5 years.
REN FENG: In a trend-driven market, how do you identify real change or development from passing fads?
ALWYN: There’s no right or wrong, and I think it would be very difficult to be correct all the time. People need to be flexible and be ready to fail because failure is one of the biggest problems that most people have. It’s not that I like failing, but I know that I will, and being realistic about it is great. The saying, “It’s better to try and fail, than to fail to try” is more relevant today than ever. Things are happening so fast that if you sit and take 6 months to decide and plan, by the time you get an answer, everything is different.
Edited by Wy-Lene Yap