Why E-Commerce is not enough

Chatting with Navin Amarasuriya, executive director of RISIS, is a walk through winding paths. You stroll from talking about e-commerce to the Galapagos to philosophy. The topics meander but one thing’s for sure: all of it is fascinating.

Founded in Singapore in 1976, RISIS is known for its gold-plated orchids and sculptures, made by a process that is unique to the brand. We caught up with Navin to talk about RISIS’ transition to the digital economy.

Commodification of the Unique

“I think it’s simplistic to talk about the rise of e-commerce as a distinct channel when we wake up and fall asleep to the glow of our smartphones.” Navin says. He explains that the culture of self magnified by algorithms that curate content and products are now interwoven with consumption.

Navin Amarasuriya, Executive Director of RISIS Picture Credits: Solostream

Navin Amarasuriya, Executive Director of RISIS Picture Credits: Solostream

Navin cites the ability of online platforms to naturally serve the ‘long tail’, which refers to a customer segment group that are too niche for traditional retailers to build a business case for. These customers may be few in a physical space like a mall, but when their global numbers are combined, they collectively can create opportunities for new online platforms to serve them.

While companies like Amazon have become forces of nature (with 480 million items now listed), even they are now giving way to even more specific online e-commerce platforms like Jetpens.com, which focuses on high end stationary products from European and Japanese manufacturers.

He attributes that to the smaller player’s ability to dive deeper into subcultures. “No one can predict the next medium that will shake up distribution networks in the way that ecommerce did, but if you find your tribe, build niche products that speak to them intimately while controlling your manufacturing, you’ll probably remain relevant.”

More than a Warehouse?

Navin describes having lunch with the CEO of a global luxury goods group who observed that most retail stores are pretty warehouses for their products and no more. “I had never thought about that,” Navin says. “There are very few examples of companies who have tried to reimagine this, but looking at history there is direction it seems to be moving.”

Navin speculates that as supply chains shorten, as international brands take back distribution, the logical conclusion is for production to occur even closer to consumers. “Then you have a point at which the factories will be found in what used to be a retail setting,” Navin explains.

The mall of the future could look very different indeed.

E-Commerce & the Galapagos Islands

Picture Credits: National Geographic

Picture Credits: National Geographic

RISIS has partnered with Chinese online retail website Tmall Global to expand the brand’s reach to a new market. We asked Navin why it didn’t choose to sell on its own online platform as it was able to be accessed globally.

“For the Chinese market, I think we were very realistic when we first analyzed it. As a Singaporean company, we realised that the Chinese e-commerce universe is an environment unto itself. It’s kind of like how the animals that evolved on the Galapagos are only suitable to live in that environment. Any other foreign animal that tries to play in that environment is just not adapted. Tmall allowed us a way to enter the landscape with relatively manageable risks & costs.”

The challenge was how to engage with Chinese customers. Chinese domestic brands have mastered the art of doing so, and foreign brands have to work harder to connect. “So we rely on our Tmall partner to adapt our marketing plans and get our message out there.”

Stoicism & Singularity

“I’m not perfect, but I believe in the idea that we can cultivate ourselves. We cannot control our circumstances but we can practice at getting better at reacting to them. ”
— Navin Amarasuriya

We end our chat asking Amarasuriya to name someone who inspires him. Unsurprising for someone who has talked through e-commerce to the Galapagos (and more besides, like animation and virtual reality, topics that couldn’t be squeezed into this article), Navin cites the influence of Stoicism and teachers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.

“We live in an age where giant companies like Facebook & Google deploy the tools of technology, psychology and neuroscience to make people better consumers. Every time the phone vibrates and we lose our train of thought, we slowly start to prioritise short term gain over long term well being.”

“Stoicism is really about the search for peace of mind through cultivating self discipline and understanding that while we are sometimes controlled by our desires and fears, through observation and practice, we can develop a better understanding of each.”

For Navin, Stoicism reflects a ‘first principles’ approach to life. “I’m not perfect, but I believe in the idea that we can cultivate ourselves. We cannot control our circumstances but we can practice at getting better at reacting to them”. These lessons show us how to navigate the tumultuous reality of change that’s happening all around us.”