UPDATE: The Naiise store has been open since the end of 2017. Photo courtesy Naiise
For online retailer Naiise, the focus is not just about creating access to great design, but also providing local designers a platform on which to flourish. We speak to Naiise MD, WEN DEE TAN.
Founded in 2013 by Singaporean Dennis Tay, Naiise was developed when the marketeer began noticing the wealth of design products available from the creative communities in Singapore, which were hidden from the limelight. To give these designers a platform to sell their products, he began his first online store with SGD3,000 and has not looked back since.
“When we think about local design, there’s a certain perception towards it. People are used to having international household brands and they have the perception that it’s probably not durable, or not of good quality,” said Wen Dee Tan, Managing Director of Naiise.
“The designers that we have are really good at what they do. Yet they’re not recognised in the industry, so we decided to give them a platform in our online store,” she said.
Now with six brick-and-mortar stores in Singapore and over 1,000 brands in the stable, Naiise.com.my has just been launched, with a physical store set to launch in the final quarter of 2017 at the newly refurbished Zhongshan Building in Jalan Kampung Attap (a product resulting from a Think City Grant). The brand also has plans to move into the UK market as it represents their second-largest group of customers.
We speak to Wen Dee at Piu Piu Piu, a favourite coffee hangout in the creative atmosphere of the Zhongshan Building.
Tell us about the origins and philosophy of Naiise.
Naiise began from the bedroom of our founder Dennis Tay in 2013.
Dennis had a branding and marketing background and he discovered that many of the people around him in the creative industries were homemakers. Not just homemakers but the kind that could win awards with the creative products they made. He also realised that they didn’t have a platform to showcase their products.
Typically creative makers are focused on making and not selling, so as a marketing person, he began to ask how he could provide a platform for them to sell.
When Dennis started the business, many people told him that he wasn’t going to make it, that the category was too niche. But that didn’t stop him from moving forward. He started off in his bedroom with just an investment of SGD3,000 and five suppliers. Things took off and he never needed to inject any more capital after that.
Today Naiise has 24,000 products and 1300 brands in the Singapore online store alone. Some of these brands will be featured in the Malaysian website as well, and we’re going to champion Malaysian designers, and help them to reach out to people not only in Malaysia but also in Singapore and the UK.
What differences are there between the main Naiise online store and the Malaysian online store?
For the Malaysian online and offline stores, our philosophy remains the same. We believe that design can better people’s lives emotionally or in terms of functionality. While there will be some existing brands in the new online store, there will be more Malaysian brands as we want to nurture the industry.
We’re including brands like Mad3 design, Nala, and Whimsy Whimsical for example, brands that have made the pop-up bazaar circuits and are beginning to get traction.
The percentage of Malaysian brands we have is 30% at the moment, but we want to increase it to 50% by the end of 2017.
Speaking of that what’s your philosophy in terms of curation?
The way we curate our items is by ensuring original, well-designed products. We don’t want just transactional relationships with our customers. We want to give them products that will resonate with them, and with the retail store, we also want to give our customers a unique experience.
When we launch our physical store, we will be highlighting 10 ‘Go Local’ products which will be exclusive to Naiise. These products will remind you of home, and evoke your childhood memories.
Heritage and nostalgia is a very strong theme going through the product mix. Is this intentional?
With Naiise, we don’t just want a transactional relationship with our customers, we want to provide the emotional experience as well. We want our customers to be able to relate to the products and from there build a certain attachment with the product and the brand.
There are many online stores out there where you can buy nice objects, but they don’t necessarily resonate with your identity and heritage or culture. So, we always look for unique designs with a story to tell, with a connection to the heritage and culture of our target market. In that way, we also form a base of quality customers.
Heritage and culture familiar to most Malaysians are a theme in the products featured in the Naiise online store with a nostalgic yet whimsical quality. Pictured here (L-R): Gem Biscuit Cushion by Meykrs, Kuih Pouch by Naiise, Nasi Lemak Magnet by Tiny Pinc Miniatures. Images courtesy: Naiise.com.my
What would you say are the top three things that differentiate Naiise?
First of all, we’re omnichannel. We have retail and online. We want to provide the experience where people don’t only shop online. They can also go offline, and due to the nostalgic nature of the products that we sell, they are able to have a unique museum-like retail experience when they come into our stores.
The internet will help us reach people who are not located near our retail stores. Hopefully someday, we will also be able to branch out to Johor and Penang with stores.
In Singapore people spend an average of 1-2 hours in our shop, and we’d love to increase that. It’s a condition that we want to build with all our retail stores. It’s also about building a community through our stores.
Our second criteria is to curate products from makers who have a story or a certain kind of spirit.
One of our makers for example had an ailing father who had been diagnosed with cancer. As a result, she began making granola as it was part of her dad’s diet, and from there it turned into an actual business. Again, products or brands with heart and soul, and a story to tell. These things resonate well with customers.
Thirdly, everything we curate must be original. We do not sell replicas. There was a case where someone reported that the products we sold were copies of someone else’s design. In that instance, we recalled all the products and refunded the money to our customers. We also told the supplier that we could no longer have them in our store.
At the end of the day it’s not just about us making money but also about helping the designers earn money. And being true to our customers.
What was the decision behind making Zhongshan your home in Kuala Lumpur?
When I came here, I instantly fell in love with it [Zhongshan] and knew that this would be the ideal location for our KL retail store. I brought my team and they all agreed that it felt right. I also love the story of the building – built in the 1950s, up and coming art and creativity hub. The building also reminded us of our roots and humble beginnings.
Back in Singapore, we started off with a pop-up store in a very secluded area of Singapore, in old shoplots, and Zhongshan reminds us of that. It also reminds us to stay down-to-earth and to keep believing in our philosophy and our reason for existing.
Staying true to our roots, being authentic and wanting to help.
“I love the story of the [Zhongshan] building – built in the 1950s, up and coming art and creativity hub. The building also reminded us of our roots and humble beginnings.” – Wen Dee Tan, MD, Naiise.com
How do you feel your store will serve the KL community?
The elements in our store will include retail, workshops, office and a cafe. It will be a one-stop lifestyle experience.
Again, we don’t want it to be solely a transactional experience. One of our core values is transparency. We want customers to come in and feel connected when they enter the space.
For example, when we were discussing our layout, I specifically requested an open space where the staff can easily spot customers walking in, so that they can greet and talk to them. When customers come in, they will be able to see the office and the packaging area, where we package things for shipping and delivery, so that also becomes part of the customer experience.
We also want this to be a space where Malaysian designers can come and hang out. Perhaps they could brainstorm in the courtyard seating area that we plan to have, and spark collaborations. There is a dedicated space for workshops. Naiise not only publicises workshops but also encourages creative makers to let them know that they can also host their own workshops. So in this way, we’re also offering them another avenue for monetising their trade.
Ultimately we want to focus on providing them opportunities across varied platforms to sell their products, so they, as designers, can focus on creating and production.
And this space itself, besides being for us, or for designers, anyone who appreciates design can come and enjoy the museum-like experience. Our aim is to make it approachable, so that people can walk in, be themselves, work on their creative projects, buy the things they like.
This story was first published under the now-defunct Think City Channel.