Pek Lay Peng
Pek Lay Peng, Founder of multi-label Asian fashion retailer SocietyA

Harper’s BAZAAR Singapore is proud to continue its partnership with Chanel to nurture the next generation of talent. Our latest initiative is the BAZAAR Academy Masterclass series, which is designed to equip students with the skills needed to tackle different facets of the business of fashion. Over the course of six weeks (from 29 October to 3 December), experts and insiders come together to share their knowledge, insights and tips.

Our fifth instalment sees Founder of multi-label Asian fashion retailer SocietyA Pek Lay Peng chatting with Executive Editor Charmaine Ho on what it takes to run a fashion retail business – and more importantly, how to do it profitably – a subject Lay Pek is very familiar with. In addition to running her family business at Shingda Group of Companies as CEO leading a team of 400 individuals, Lay Peng launched SocietyA in 2014 as an e-commerce platform before unveiling the brand’s flagship boutique at Ngee Ann City two short years later.

SocietyA was one of the first to stock Min Ju Kim before her win on Netflix’s Next in Fashion

“I was thinking of my first million dollars, but I should have thought about the first dollar,” she says with a laugh. That same ambition has served the business well: With over 55 labels under its stewardship, SocietyA is the only omnichannel platform in the world that curates and connects the best of Asian fashion (from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Paris, New York and more) to consumers across the globe. It’s also the largest distributor of Korean labels here in Singapore – all in the span of just six years. And it all started with a simple realisation that there was a clear demand that was not being met in the market.

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Recognising Market Gaps

“Back in 2014, I noticed that there was a gap in the market for designer pieces at good price points, and I also saw an opportunity in having a first-mover advantage in curating Asian designer labels,” recalls Lay Peng. “With the power of e-commerce being the key enabler in addressing the above gaps, I saw a great business opportunity for SocietyA to match Asian designers and the growing affluence of Asians on an international online platform.”

SocietyA's flagship store at Ngee Ann City
SocietyA’s flagship store at Ngee Ann City

The Importance of Customer Experience

So why the move to a brick and mortar store? “We had a pop-up at Tangs, which was very successful. From that experience, we learned that craftsmanship and fabrics are a tactile experience; touch is important and it gives consumers an added motivation to purchase a particular piece. Through on-ground interaction with the consumers, we also realised that the human connection and brand education make a difference to the number of pieces bought per transaction per consumer.”

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“As an omni-channel platform, we have worked hard to provide our consumers with a seamless shopping experience between our online platform and off-line store. It’s about understanding the consumer shopping journey and offering services that we know will enhance their shopping experience. For example, our consumers are able to enjoy the convenience of shopping online and picking up their items in-store. For returns, they have the option of dropping off the items at our store as well, without going through an online returns process. Conversely, when we run online campaigns, the consumers will now be able to try on the clothes at our store before they decide if they want to purchase the item.”

The Ability to Adapt, Fast

“Covid-19 has transformed our culture, and we are seeing all these new consumer norms and buying habits that have been steered very much online. So we have beefed up the ease of shopping online by focusing not only on the selling process (easier navigation, online chat function, nicer photos, etc), but also on post-sales services such as a direct refund instead of credit. We have also developed a more robust digital engagement plan which includes leveraging on IG Live and FB Live to interact and engage with our customers in real time and we channel specific campaigns and advertising via Wechat, FB and IG.”

SocietyA Beauty was launched with seven Singapore brands to tackle the difficulties that came with the global pandemic and Singapore’s circuit breaker

“Then, there’s SocietyA Beauty, which we launched within two months of the circuit breaker with seven Singaporean beauty brands. Since then, we have been launching about one to two Asian beauty brands per month, and we are on track to carry about 20-25 Asian beauty brands by end of this year.”

Her Advice for Fashion Entrepreneurs

“Be prepared that things will not always work according to your expectations. So, it is very important to invest in your team. Great teamwork is fundamental to the DNA of SocietyA and our ability to pivot, to transform, when we need to is a result of the power of the team.”

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“A strong vision and aspirations are important to any business. But it is the daily execution of that that you need to manage well. Practicality and idealism have to co-exist to be sustainable so think idealistically but work very hard on execution. It takes time for people to notice and buy into what you do, and to have them buy consistently from you is another challenge.”

“With or without technology, human connection is still one of the most important factors for retail and the circuit breaker has certainly taught us the value and importance of human connectivity. So focus on providing your customer with personal touches throughout all touchpoints in their shopping experience.”

“And lastly, don’t settle for less because it is limiting for growth.”