Property: Conversations with Deborah Wee, Co-Founder of e-commerce furniture store HipVan

Conversations with Deborah Wee, Co-Founder of e-commerce furniture store HipVan

“If you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys.” We’ve all heard this phrase before, and some of us might even be inclined to believe it, given the many anecdotes that get tossed about. But what if we told you that that needn’t be the case? As brands like Uniqlo and Innisfree have proven, a lower price point doesn’t always equate to a lower quality.

Meet Deborah Wee, one of the masterminds behind HipVan, a local start up that applies this philosophy to furniture. Not only does HipVan sell furnishings – both from their in-house brand and from renowned international brands – at unbeatable prices, they allow customers to do this all from the comfort of their home with their e-shop (of course, they do have a physical store for interested customers to view their products!). But that’s not all – the company takes things one step further by providing customers with interior design tips, at absolutely no extra cost.

Read on to find out more about how HipVan came about, how the company ensures that customers only get furnishing of the highest quality, and even get an insider’s opinion on the latest trends in today’s furniture market!

The Redbrick Team (RB): Tell us more about HipVan – what is your business model?
Deborah:
HipVan is an e-commerce furniture store. We curate products from all over – we have our own brand, our furniture and home furnishings, and we also represent other international brands for both soft furnishings and furniture. Our aim is to allow customers who want to furnish their homes to get everything at the click of a mouse. Everything that you can think of that you’ll need for a new home, or even for a rental apartment, we’ll have it.

RB: Why the name HipVan?
Deborah:
 “Hip” being “human innovation project” – the rational for HipVan in the first instance was to understand what people needed, and we felt that we wanted to innovate the process of purchasing furniture. On a quirkier perspective, we thought, in the hippy phases of the 1970s, people were daring enough to go forth and do whatever they want. Who cares about what other people think? Let’s just do it! And of course van, being the vehicle. We wanted to be the drivers of change to change the purchasing patterns of customers and revolutionise the furniture industry.

So that’s why HipVan, because when we first started it, online furniture was not common in Asia, so we wanted to be the forerunners of this purchasing pattern for this industry.

RB: Who are your competitors and what sets you apart from them?
Deborah: 
We don’t really have competitors as we have more a comprehensive product range, and similar platforms like IKEA are completely offline. We are similar in the sense that we have the full range of everything you can have for a home, both furniture and soft furnishings.

What sets us apart from them is that you can just shop online, 24/7. We now have the showroom where you can still do the weekend walk-by thing, but go home and then have everything delivered to you. There’s no need to queue for hours, and then arrange for delivery, which is joining another queue.

We also have a variety of themes, because different people have different tastes. Sometimes you like the modern, classic, contemporary types like Scandinavian. Whatever it is, we have different ranges suited to the different tastes from both the furnishings and furniture itself.

RB: Where do your products originate from?
Deborah: 
Several places. Our products come from China, India and Malaysia. India is mainly for the fabrics, but for furniture – it’s usually China and Malaysia, and also some independent designs from brands that already exist.

RB: What do your services include?
Deborah:
 Apart from being an online platform to sell furniture and home furnishings, we also encourage customers to write in to us if they need tips on designing stuff. If they are not sure or need assistance with a little bit of interior design, we are here to help advise them on which HipVan product would be suited for their preference and the size of their house. So it’s just like a free WhatsApp interior decorator service that we do provide for our own products. and we do free delivery, free returns.

Interior Design Home Renovation Image source : Redbrick

RB: Do you have in-house designers?
Deborah: 
Yes, we have in-house designers. They actually work closely with us, on a seasonal basis. We want to review the collections that we have, so the merchandising team would go to the furniture fairs to check out the new trends, etc. We would also hear feedback from our customers, if there are certain types of designs or looks that they prefer, we’ll try and see if we can tweak certain items that we have for the new range that will be suited for their homes.

RB: What are the latest furniture trends?
Deborah: 
Small, compact furniture. Singapore houses are becoming smaller and smaller, so people like the Japanese style where it doesn’t compromise on design, but yet it suits perfectly into that little space and makes it look good. A good piece of furniture allows you to bring out the essence of the space without compromising on the quality of living. For us I think the furniture trend is going into compact or modular furniture that is multi-functional, and allows flexibility within the home.

A good piece of furniture allows you to bring out the essence of the space without compromising on the quality of living.

RB: What does a regular work day look like?
Deborah:
Previously I was doing merchandising and marketing, but now I’m overseeing operations, customer experience, so for me on a day to day basis, it’s a mixture of finding out what are the issues that some customers might be facing and see if it’s an operations/inventory/process issue, try and solve it. Sometimes I do have to deal with customers because on transaction emails my contact is there. We just want to make sure that there is always someone that people can contact. You know it’s very annoying when you buy something and you cannot find the contact number, so we want to have that personal touch, 24/7. I think for them it’s a nice thing, because there is some human life form behind this website, and that’s important in building the brand, the trust and the relationship with the customers.

Other than that, it’s working with the team to make sure whatever comes in goes out properly on time, and hopefully we’ll reduce the number of defective or wrongly shipped items, essentially getting as many orders out as possible. The faster we ship to our customers, the faster they can enjoy it.

Interior Design Home Renovation Image source : Redbrick

RB: Any plans for expansion beyond the Singapore market?
Deborah: 
We recently launched our Malaysian platform (hipvan.com.my) and it has a separate product offer for the Malaysian market, it’s not exactly the same as the Singapore website. Because we only ship to main cities within peninsular Malaysia, it’s heavily focused on furniture with a smaller range of home furnishings, not the big range that Singapore has.

We also  just recently launched our US site and we are psyched to assess the market potential there and to see how we can fit in and better the players there (hipvan.nyc). That’s the beauty of e-commerce, and since we’re a tech based company, we’re simply just replicating the model overseas.

RB: What is your customer’s segment today?
Deborah:
In terms of demographics, mainly, females. The females choose, and the guys pay (laughs). Mostly young professionals, age 28 to early 40s. A lot of newlyweds, a lot of them living in the new areas like Punggol, Sengkang, Compassvale, and even the east side. We do have privy to new establishments that are going to TOP, because you will suddenly see a lot of orders coming in from certain condominiums, so it’s quite interesting.

We even have quite a big number of customers from the Bukit Timah area, as well as Sentosa cove, Robinson road areas, so that’s quite interesting.

RB: How many customers do you serve in a year?
Deborah:
To date, we have about 60,000 customers that appreciate great value for great designs. We are so happy that we have made their homes a little nicer with our products.

RB: How is the quality control policy like?
Deborah: 
When we bring on a new product, the track record of the manufacturer is very important, so we will look at who they are supplying to and their existing product range. We’ll visit the manufacturing floor so we can see how the workers work, if the conditions are conducive, how things are organised, the kind of machinery they use, whether is it new, old. For raw materials, we look at their stockpile, from fabric to foam to wood and look at how they store them. All these are very important, and if we have any doubts, then we will ask them to tell us their raw material supplier, so we can QC that as well.

Then we will give them the specifications of the product, they will manufacture accordingly and show us a fully completed prototype. Only when we have verified the prototype, then we will place the order. When the actual order is completed, we will also do QC. If it’s the first order, we will do a 100% QC – which means every single piece we will open up the box and take out and if there are parts that needs to be assembled, we will fully assemble them. If it’s someone who we are regularly buying from, and has no previous track record of any issues, then we will do selective QC – out of 100 pieces we will pick out 5 pieces to check. This is a continuous process and you can never completely let it go, because factory workers change, material suppliers change, so it’s an ongoing thing.

If there’s something we’re not happy with, we try to work together with them, to make it a better product.

Interior Design Home Renovation Image source : Redbrick

If there’s something we’re not happy with, we try to work together with them, to make it a better product.

RB: What are your hobbies? / What do you do in your free time?
Deborah: 
I go to the gym and like playing sports like volleyball, or racket sports like tennis. I like reading, (but rarely) because I don’t have time for that anymore. I also love travelling!

Interior Design Home Renovation Image source : Redbrick

RB: What is one interesting fact about yourself that people don’t usually know?
Deborah:
Contrary to popular belief… I’m not an extrovert.

Catch Deborah at the upcoming instalment of Property Quotient, Redbrick’s real estate seminar series that will be happening on 25 February, 2017. To find out more, click here!

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