How retail can thrive in the age of e-commerce: An interview with Love, Bonito’s Dione Song

Dione Song, Chief Commercial Officer of Love, Bonito

(Picture Credits: High Net Worth)

If you ran one of the most successful e-commerce shops in Singapore, the last thing on your mind might be to open a brick and mortar store. But that’s what Love, Bonito has done. And Dione Song, Chief Commercial Officer, reveals to us that the store is working out very well for them.

After seven years of operating mostly online, Love, Bonito’s first flagship store opened in November last year. “It’s done amazingly well,” Song says. “Our operating margins are healthy and the feedback from our landlords is that we’re one of the most productive stores when it comes to fashion.”

Despite the rise of e-commerce, retail sales in Singapore for apparel and footwear have risen. The latest data from the Singapore Department of Statistics shows that sales increased by 5% year-on-year in March.

Meet Dione Song, Love, Bonito’s first C-suite hire and spinning vortex

Meeting Song is like being drawn into a spinning vortex, albeit a friendly one. She spoke rapidly for the length of our interview without seeming to tire, jumping effortlessly from one topic to the next. Her energy apparently extends into the wee hours, as the self-confessed workaholic professes she zaps off emails at 3 AM.

Song joined Love, Bonito as its first C-suite hire in May 2018, after years spent in Sephora and Zalora. As Love, Bonito’s Chief Commercial Officer, Song spends her days overseeing a mishmash of teams, from operations to marketing to technology.

Why the Love, Bonito flagship store?

Love, Bonito's first flagship store located in #02-16/21 at 313@Somerset

(Picture Credits: Love, Bonito)

“We saw the need to have a tangible space to connect and better understand and serve our customers,” Song says. Love, Bonito had tested and experimented with pop-up stores successfully before taking the leap to go offline. “Conversion rates were way better when people touched our products offline.”

Another reason was customer feedback. Love, Bonito’s customers kept asking if there was somewhere they could try its items. “The flagship store is a good place to try out stuff,” Song says. “You can use one fitting session to get a good gauge of your sizing.”

What makes the flagship store successful?

Song thinks there are a few reasons why the flagship store works. For one, the assortment is slightly different from the Love, Bonito online store, and there are constant launches.

For another, the store gives people a reason to go back. The flagship store holds events like styling workshops, and the store has a feedback wall for customers to leave their thoughts.

“It’s a different retail experience, almost like a community meet-up point,” Song says. It’s this kind of transformation that she believes the retail store has to undergo to survive.

How can retail stores thrive in the age of e-commerce?

Retail has to become something more - An experiential point with a reason for people to go back.
— Dione Song

“Retailers are distributing products, but retail has to become something more,” Song says. “An experiential point with a reason for people to go back. It’s not just selling a product, because e-commerce on a mobile app can do that so much better.”

The magic phrase in that paragraph is ‘a reason for people to go back.’ But how?

“Retail has to offer an experience, something unique, or something exclusive,” Song says. “You can also win with an extra touch. What we’re doing now is have more Love, Bonito stylists at the store. They’re not just selling products, they’re giving our customers suggestions on how to dress better. Without that something more, there’s no reason to go back.”

Song is certain that technology will play a big part in retail’s transformation. But technology that’s actually useful, not a gimmick, like magic mirrors. “Why do you need augmented reality on you when the fitting room is just there?”

Technology has to improve the buying process. Song imagines, for example, a way to save to your account the items you’ve tried in the fitting room. If you shop online later, you can recall what you tried earlier in the store.

What people get wrong about e-commerce

“People think of e-commerce as where you get worse quality or cheap things,” Song says. “So there’s always a credibility and trust issue.” It’s why the flagship store and an omnichannel strategy matters. When people touch and feel the product, they get that even though Love, Bonito is affordable, that doesn’t mean it’s bad quality.”

When it comes to the business side of things, Song thinks there’s a misconception that e-commerce sites are cheap to run. “When you run a small site, it might be okay. But when you’re running a big site, you’re competing against a lot of the big guys. It means a lot of marketing investment to drive people to your website.”

And when you up your game, the barrier of entry gets higher. “If you want to play with data,” Song says, “you need to have the technical know-how to do things like retargeting, monitoring customer repurchase rates, and so on.”

The key challenges Love, Bonito is facing

And data is something that Love, Bonito wants to expand into. “We used a simpler shopping platform in the past,” Song says. “As we scale, there’s a need to improve the platform. A key challenge is growing our engineering and product team. The more we want to do customizations and omnichannel integrations, the more we need to grow an in-house team.”

Song confides that Love, Bonito’s in-house tech team is entirely new. Not too long ago, it was just a team of one!

The secret of that vitality

I came here with a very focused goal of building a legacy brand. Something that can last through the years. It’s time that we see a Singaporean retail group do well in Asia.
— Dione Song

Before we end our interview, we just have to know — where does she get her energy from? Song laughs and attempts an answer.

“I don’t know, but I came here with a very focused goal of building a legacy brand. Something that can last through the years. It’s not something we’re only building for Singapore but also for overseas. I haven’t seen any big local retail companies being successful except for Charles and Keith. And we should see more of that. It’s time that we see a Singaporean retail group do well in Asia.”