SINGAPORE — Eighteen-year-old Joanna Wong loves “American Idol,” pop music by singers like Celine Dion, and graphic T-shirts from American Eagle Outfitters.
The first two aren’t any problem to get in her home city — satellite TV and music megastores like HMV are easily available in Singapore. But the American Eagle T-shirts are another matter. The company has no stores in Singapore — or anywhere in Asia — and even though the brand is sold on one of the relatively few U.S.-based Web sites that will ship abroad, buying a $19.50 T-shirt would cost Wong a budget-busting $25 in international shipping fees.
So, what’s a graphic T-shirt loving teen to do?
Nothing, until last fall, when Wong discovered online spreeing, a growing trend among Singapore youths who want the cool foreign fashions they see in magazines and on TV but can’t find at home. On a small but rising number of local online forums, the term “spree” has come to define a group of shoppers who combine their shopping lists and make one large purchase together from an online retailer based abroad. The participants split any shipping costs and added taxes to get the goods back to Singapore, which dramatically lowers the final price from what their purchase would have cost if each had bought and shipped it on their own.
The concept suits a teen’s budget, which gravitates toward small, lower-priced purchases. In Wong’s case, that means the American Eagle Ts, her favorite Bonne Bell Lip Smackers ($1.60 each) and trendy tops from budget-friendly Forever 21. She got hooked on spreeing through an online forum at sgspree.livejournal.com and has become one of the group’s most active organizers. She compiles and places an order and distributes the purchases when they arrive in Singapore.
Spree organizers don’t get paid, but Wong doesn’t mind because spreeing has opened up a whole new range of fun finds.
“Shopping online is so much easier and cheaper than going to a store,” said Wong, a college student who organizes about one spree a week and spends as much as 20 hours a week shopping online. “But only when it’s not exam time, because then I have to study more.”
Wong does about 90 percent of her shopping via cyber-sprees. “I can’t even remember the last time I bought something in a store,” she said.
Singapore’s strong economy and wide exposure to Western brands have made the city-state a shopping hub in Southeast Asia, so it is natural that its status as a leader in shopping trends would extend online. More than 80 percent of Singapore’s Internet denizens have shopped online, making an average of five to six purchases a month, the same number made by consumers in Taiwan and China. Like Singapore, they are key e-commerce markets in Asia, according to an ACNielsen global study released in October.
Even as tactics such as spreeing have helped make online shopping more accessible, there are other hurdles to surmount when ordering from abroad.
About 41 percent of medium- and large-sized online merchants won’t ship to foreign addresses or accept foreign credit cards for purchases, creating a significant problem for local cybershoppers. The reasons: fear of fraud, and the challenges of logistics and payment infrastructures.
Such issues are being addressed by new services such as ComGateway, a Singapore-based online shopping system intended to make it easier for local customers to shop on Web sites based abroad. The service, which launched its pilot program last June in a partnership with MasterCard and local Singapore bank DBS, provides customers with a billing and shipping address in Oregon where they can send their purchases. Then, for a flat rate of $17.50 for as much as 1 kilo (plus $2.50 per additional kilo) the company redirects the packages to the customer in Singapore within a week. The bank partnership provides customers with a credit card address that is recognized by U.S. merchants, and a system to guard against fraud.
“If you’re a consumer shopping online and you are able to see but not buy, it can be a very frustrating experience,” said Danny Lim, chief executive officer of Creditel, the parent company of ComGateway. “We wanted to help make it a possibility.”
In the first six months of the pilot program, about 3,500 customers signed up for the service. Since then, ComGateway has processed an estimated $500,000 in orders, with about 60 percent of them for apparel and accessories. This response has prompted plans to expand the service to other countries in the Middle East and Asia, including China, by the end of this year.
Singapore’s postal service is assisting online shoppers in a similar fashion, via vPost, which routes packages to Singapore from an address in California, provided they are from online merchants that accept Singapore credit cards.
Clearly, the use of such services is good news for Singapore’s growing spree community, which is mostly made up of tech-savvy, trend-following females in their teens and twenties. Spreeing appeals less to older consumers, who either have the income to shop the Web on their own or don’t have the computer know-how to try.
Most spree participants love shopping online because they can find outfits, makeup and accessories that they can’t get at home. “It’s cool to have things that no one else does,” said Wong Liang Lin, a ponytailed 17-year-old technology student who monitors the spree site she created, spsspree.tk, from an ever-present laptop. “If you’re wearing something different, you’ll get stopped on the street, because people want to know where you bought it.”
The status appeal is strong: Liang Lin’s spree site, launched about a year ago, has more than 450 members. The site holds about three sprees per week — “but double that during school holidays,” she said. Typically, from 10 to 30 people shop during each spree.
Most are looking for unique variations of the casual, comfortable styles they usually wear. Theodora Kwok, 18, a chatty, self-confessed Internet bargain-hunter, is obsessed with the deals at oldnavy.com — and she’s even gotten her 22-year-old brother into spreeing there. She likes Old Navy’s flip-flops and denim miniskirts; he likes the graphic Ts.
“Everyone in Singapore is already wearing brands like Quiksilver,” Kwok said of labels bought in local stores. “But if you can buy at oldnavy.com, you get something no one else has, and it’s much cheaper, too.”
Kwok has used spreeing to stock up on Avon mascara, funky T-shirts from DavidandGoliathtees.com — she’s been eyeing one that says “Boys are Stupid” — and more than 40 bottles of O.P.I. nail polish, which is available in Singapore but, like many imported products, costs about twice what she pays for it online. For Kwok, spreeing also has another, more practical purpose: a chance to find cool clothes that fit her size 14 frame.
“Most girls in Singapore are really tiny, so stores only stock small sizes,” said Kwok, who, like many others, pays for her purchases with money from her allowance, which is about $250 a month. “I can find so many more things that fit me online.”
Though most spree sites have made the process routine, it is not always hassle-free. Many spree shoppers share stories about organizers who stole the money instead of placing an order, or a shirt that looked great online but was a weird color and the wrong fit when it arrived. In addition, returns are a big problem for spree shoppers purchasing from Web sites based abroad because of the high shipping costs to return items to the U.S. Most simply resell their unwanted purchases on local online auctions.
Despite such risks, spree enthusiasts said one great find makes it all worth the effort.
“I saw this green bikini with pink Scottie dogs on ‘The O.C.,'” said Kwok, with a grin that reveals black and pink braces. “On delias.com it was about $30, which I thought might be too expensive. But then I saw the exact same one at the mall here for more than [$200].
“When I saw how much it costs here, I just had to have it,” added Kwok, who returned to delias.com and bought the item.