Belgian entrepreneurs Jonathan Roelandts and Katrien Bollen have set up a store in Shanghai’s Jingan district this year. Their company, Ethnicraft Online, uses a hybrid model that combines an online store with a physical showroom. They tell us all about their entrepreneurial journey as they bring Ethnicraft’s high quality teak furniture to China.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. Tell us something about yourself? How did you come to set up Ethnicraft Online?
We are Jonathan Roelandts and Katrien Bollen, two Belgians who have been living in Asia (Singapore) for over 5 years.
Jonathan: Before coming in Singapore, I was working for a large international bank in Brussels. Inspired by the entrepreneurial story of the Ethnicraft founders Philippe Delaisse and Benoit Loos, I joined Ethnicraft in 2010 as Business Development Manager for Asia Pacific. In this position, I got acquainted with all the aspects of running a business – from sourcing, to production, sales, after-sales service, people management, etc. I really believed in Ethnicraft’s brand value to get closer to the end-consumers and pitched the idea of launching Ethnicraft Online to Philippe and Benoit at the end of 2011. In my free time, I am passionate about ultra-trail running, reading business books and adventurous traveling.
Katrien: I moved to Singapore in 2010 to pursue my MBA from Insead. After graduation, I was keen to start an entrepreneurial venture in the online retail space in Asia. When moving to Singapore, I found it challenging to find great looking, high-end but affordable furniture that – in addition – was immediately available. That sparked off the idea to launch an online furniture store in Singapore with functional furniture pieces of contemporary, high quality design. In my free time, I enjoy playing tennis or running.
What is the raison d’etre of Ethnicraft Online?
Ethnicraft Online stands for “high quality teak furniture”, “impeccable customer service” and “happy & convenient shopping”. Ethnicraft Online is the B2C concept of Ethnicraft, a Belgian company specialized in teak design furniture. After successes in Singapore and Malaysia, Ethnicraft Online expanded to Shanghai earlier this year. We have a “hybrid model” where we combine an online store with a physical showroom. This way, consumers can browse Ethnicraft Online’s website at home, select their preferred products, measure dimensions, and even make their order online. For consumers that want to touch & feel the product, they can contact us to visit our showroom in Jing An. With this approach – rather than the commercial high street set-up – we are able to reach out to a wider audience and reinvest cost savings in a transparent all-in pricing structure, a stock of readily available furniture pieces and customer service, such as free delivery, free returns and complimentary maintenance services.
Why did you decide to set up shop in Shanghai?
After earlier successes in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, we felt that the next interesting market for us would be Shanghai. Shanghai has interesting demographics. We believe that the Shanghainese will appreciate our elegant and design furniture. Furthermore, Shanghai also has a large expat population who might already be familiar with the brand. For both audiences, we feel that our contemporary furniture pieces would be a great addition to their interior. Finally, we believe we will offer an outstanding model in terms of customer service. Since we have launched in Shanghai, sales have exceeded our expectations, so our gut feel proved to be right!
Tell us about how your products are sourced and designed. Is anything made here in China?
Ethnicraft products are designed by our in-house team in Europe, but we also collaborate with international designers for exclusive collections, e.g., Singaporean designer Nathan Yong. Our essential values are innovative, authentic & contemporary designs.
Our teak is sourced from Java in Indonesia – both from sustainably managed teak plantations as well as from neglected buildings. All our collections carry a unique FSC number stating that the products are made from 100% FSC certified wood – all eco-friendly. Our main production unit is located in Central Java in Indonesia, Ethnicraft owns the factory, which really benefits us to increase capacity and quality control.
We do not design nor source any furniture in China. We are present in China only as a retailer in order to meet the Chinese market demand.
Why did you decide to have an online store instead of a brick-and-mortar one? Don’t people want to try out the furniture before they actually part with their money?
That’s exactly why we decided on a hybrid model. We combine an online store with a 2,000 square feet physical showroom in Jing An, so our consumers can still touch and feel the product if they want to. We let our customers make appointments in the store, so we can give them our full attention. It’s open daily from 10 AM to 7 PM. We make a point of being open on public holidays as well, because we want to be able to cater to shoppers with busy work schedules. In addition, we have added a vibrant Children’s Corner to our showroom to allow mums and dads to shop at ease while their little ones have fun. We chose this approach – rather than the commercial high street set-up, because want to be able to reach out to a wide audience. This way we are also able to reinvest the costs we save in a transparent all-in pricing structure, a stock of readily available furniture pieces and customer service, such as free delivery, free returns and complimentary maintenance services.
Where do you see Ethnicraft going in the future?
We will continue the development of Ethnicraft in Asia – both through our B2B and B2C channels. Now that we are established in Shanghai with Ethnicraft Online, we can consider expanding to other major cities in China, e.g., Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou. But let’s first get Shanghai right, and learn from the experiences here. There is also lots of potential to expand within our current locations. In Singapore, for instance, we introduced a new, more playful range last November, called “Universo Positivo”. We are also going to introduce Oak products later this year in Singapore. We definitely see potential for a range extension in Shanghai as well.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in setting up your own business in China?
Of course, setting up a new business always goes hand in hand with some challenges. But overall, we had a smooth start. Of course, as China is a new market for us, we had to invest quite some time in understanding the legal and business environment. Secondly, we had to tailor our marketing approach. In Singapore and Malaysia, all communication is in English. For China, we have translated our website in Chinese, and soon we’ll be announcing our Chinese brand name. For the online marketing, we were used to work with Google, Facebook, etc., but now expanded to Baidu, Weibo, QQ, WeChat. We want to be locally relevant. But it’s all a learning curve. We’re still in the process of really understanding the needs of the Shanghainese consumers, and we adapt our communication, customer service model, etc. along the way.
What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs in China?
It might sound cliché but our advice would be to always fully believe in the opportunity and to not be afraid to “fail”. China is definitely not the easiest market to launch a business, but there is so much opportunity here. So, prepare well, be patient, take time to learn about the Chinese consumers and adapt your model to meet the local needs. Finally, enjoy it and be prepared to start your journey on the rocky path that any starting entrepreneur faces.
Check out Ethnicraft Online here, where you can also make an online appointment to visit their showroom at Unit 1A Anken Green, 668 Huai An Road, Shanghai.
Phone: (+86) 185 2107 8172. Email: [email protected]