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By Anita Devasahayam

July 17, 2000 to go beyond books

KUALA LUMPUR, July 17 - Book specialist will take the plunge into becoming a full-blown online merchandiser by expanding its offerings to include Asian music, arts, crafts and toys.

Co-founder Arthur Lee said that the company has gained ground for its Asian titles and aims to leverage on this strong differentiating factor from Western e-tailers.

"We want to offer a wide range of products to as wide a customer base as possible. We will soon introduce music, art pieces, toys and other Asian-origin merchandise. There are adequate margins in each product category," he told ZDNet Asia.

Lee said books will continue to be a mainstay for the seven-month-old online retailer, but increasingly its customers have come to expect other Asian merchandise. ''It is generally true that if one can sell books and make money online, one can sell anything. The challenge is to identify good suppliers and distributors and not price our goods below cost," he said. went online in January after establishing three physical stores in Johore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia since 1998. The site enjoys a 15,000 daily hit rate and has attracted local corporate buyers including Malaysia's Multimedia Development Corporation and Telekom Malaysia.

Globally, Lee said the company has fulfilled orders as far away as Canada and Chile and even made inroads into the US' East Coast (New York City) and West Coast (California) markets for various Asian titles on health, travel and cuisine.

"The purchases from there are from professionals and entrepreneurs who run their own businesses and have a professional interest in Asia, or a personal interest in Asian health practices or Asian cooking. Our US sales are small, but should increase as we get more exposure there," he said, noting that several collaborations are in the pipeline. already has tie-ups with Intel, MSN, Web currency player, regional news portals Asia One and, and telco-based portal players < a href=""> and Mobile One.

"For a young Asian company like ours, these collaborations are sources of validation of our business model and practices," he said. also recently received accreditation from CaseTrust, a non-profit consumer protection consortium in Singapore promoting trusted electronic commerce sites. "Online consumers who visit and shop with us now know that they have institutional recourse should they feel disenchanted with our retail practices. This is a source of psychological comfort for our shoppers and underlines our commitment to building trust and confidence in our relationship with them," said Lee.

Lee admits that the outlook for any all-merchandise retailing business is not all rosy. "In its execution, so much can potentially go wrong, leading to business failure. The jury is still out on the long-term viability of the model, for example, but I am hopeful they will succeed. At the end of the day, it takes an extraordinary business leader or entrepreneur supported by a formidable management team to build a great retailing site."

Lee said although the book industry in the region is aware of the opportunities of online retailing, there are still various hurdles ahead. "Some local publishers and distributors have yet to convert their database of titles into digital form. They should seize the opportunity and upgrade their operational processes to be web-enabled, as much as possible."

He added that customers' demands are also still centered on books in the English language and it will take time for the online availability of titles in the Mandarin, Korean, Tamil and Malay languages to develop. "We hope to have catalogues or synopses of these books available in English once demand picks up," he said.

Published in ZDNet Asia
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