Tucked away in a cul-de-sac on Middle Road stands a stone-grey conservation shophouse. While its neoclassical architectural style is a throwback to the colonial times, its occupants are keen to embrace the new.
The shophouse is home to Paragon Traders. Set up in 1968, the beauty distributor did a brisk trade peddling hair products to salons during its early days.
"Back then, there was not a lot of competition in the market. Everyone in the industry knew one another," said Robert Lian, 60, whose father-in-law first started the business along with a few friends.
"But times have changed and there is much more competition in the local market – from brick-and-mortar shops to online retailers."
Today, the 51-year-old trading company sells over 3,000 beauty products from international brands – such as nail polish removers, hair styling irons, and facial steamers – to salons, spas and stores.
But he realised that some customers would bypass Paragon Traders and purchase directly from the beauty brands through online sites. This new business landscape prompted him to rethink its business strategy – reaching out to consumers, instead of just businesses, through ecommerce.
From traditional to technology-driven
Its online journey started with a simple website about 10 years ago, featuring an online catalogue with just product descriptions.
As the sole agent of over 15 beauty brands from Australia, Japan and Europe, interested buyers would call or set up a meeting with its sales team to purchase the products.
Robert confessed that he baulked at the concept of ecommerce at first.
"It was taking away the livelihood of brick-and-mortar shops," he noted, lamenting the digital disruption that is weighing on the minds of many retailers.
Yet, the trend was too huge to ignore and the company decided to try e-tail.
"We did not want to lose out to competitors. There was no choice," he said. "If we don’t jump onto the bandwagon, we get left behind."
From retail to e-tail
To offer ecommerce, its website needed an e-payment facility to enable online transactions. So Robert turned to web developers for help.
The company’s first forays into e-tailing were plagued with problems. Web developers either could not deliver the goods or went bust.
Fortunately, Robert learnt about Shoptiq at a seminar hosted by Singtel in early 2018 and decided to give it a shot a few months later.
"Previously, we got others to help manage and update our online store. But with Shoptiq, it is easy to manage our own shop and update the inventory," he said.
Moving from the previous platform was also painless, as Shoptiq support team guided them through the entire process.
"I am very happy with Shoptiq. It works for us because I always believe in having control over my own shopfront, my own portal," he shared.
He has even turned down other ecommerce marketplaces that have approached him to list his products with them.
"I did not want to as I want to be able to set my own prices. I do not want to undercut my products that are being sold at salons," he maintained.
The online journey is still work in progress.
"We are working on a redesign and getting help with search engine optimisation and marketing to boost our online presence."
The company is also using tech tools and social media platforms, from Google Analytics, Facebook and Instagram, to promote its products.
From business customers to consumers
When the company embraced online sales, they witnessed the power of the virtual market.
"Selling online opened doors further to the international market," he explained, even though they already had a regional presence in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam.
"People buy from us because we are based in Singapore, and we can guarantee that the products we sell are authentic."
While the bulk of its business is supplying products directly to companies, its online store has also widened its sales channels to consumers as well – complementing its retail outlet along Middle Road.
As the online business starts to pick up pace, Robert is bullish about the future of his beauty retail business.
"We have to continually innovate to survive. Ecommerce is one innovation we are working on, along with the SEO and SEM of our website. We will also continue to find new markets for our products," he said.
"In order to progress, we’ll have to keep taking baby steps."