First there was online shopping, which opened the door to America’s shopping malls with the help of a ‘manufactured’ local address and a global shipping service.

Now, enter the personal online shopper – a modern-day Santa’s helper who can go where the big players don’t, scouring the farthest corners of the world to fulfil your every buying wish. Want to buy a samurai sword? They’ll find one for you in Japan. Want astronaut food? No problem. Black water? Yes there’s a store for that too.


Singaporeans rank as the most “adventurous” shoppers in the region, say Rebecca Chia and Xin-Lung Tai – founders of the online personal shopping provider ShopandBox which sourced the above-mentioned sword, water and space snacks for their clients.

With an average spend of US$252 and a repeat shopper rate of 30 percent, not everybody is buying weird things. Most shoppers are into beauty products, especially limited edition releases and brands that can’t be found here, like the trendy US-only brand Glossier and Herbivore Botanicals from Korea.

Fashion is popular too, particularly sneakers from the US, UK, Australia, Korea and Japan. So are snacks which remind shoppers of their travels, and recently, there’s been an uptick in interest in stationery, homeware, toys, baby clothes and even party accessories. Not to mention a 3D map from France, smoking pipe and tobacco from Japan, and homemade fragrances from Korea, which are some recent purchases. As well as a Weber BBQ pit, bee-keeping equipment and third cut timothy hay (top-grade bedding for your pet rabbit).

ShopandBox prides itself on being a truly global online service as they have over 100 “boxers” in 28 countries. These are real people who are assigned to shoppers after they identify what they want. The boxers buy the goods in their country, and pack them to be sent via DHL to the shopper wherever he or she lives.

“The key thing is the DHL service which we negotiated for months to get, as it gives ShopandBox customers a preferential rate,” explains Mr Tai. Shoppers pay a service fee to ShopandBox, and a negotiated fee to the boxer.

The savings can range from 10 to 30 per cent, but more importantly, because there’s a “real person” at the other end, it’s much easier to get a hold of limited edition or unique items. And the DHL rate and service is hard to top.

Plus there’s no limit to the places customers can shop in. “Shoppers have also ventured out to buy from Italy, Taiwan, Sweden, Brazil and Turkey besides the usual top-selling countries of the US, UK and Japan, and Korea,” says Ms Tan.


SINGAPORE startup Airfrov began in March 2015 after co-founder Cai Li found himself always buying beauty products, bags and unique local snacks for his girlfriend whenever he travelled. So he thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if he could help others at the same time?

Instead of the usual seller-listing marketplace, shoppers post requests which serve as “job ads” to travellers. An Airfrov request normally takes a week to be fulfilled, and if it’s not, the request will be kept open for 30 days for other travellers to take up the task. “About 80 per cent of our requests receive offers from travellers,” says Mr Cai.

Travellers earn tips on top of the price paid for the requested item. Airfrov charges a service fee of seven per cent plus S$2 on top of the amount the customer is prepared to pay. The traveller deposits the goods at the Airfrov collection centre, and is paid only when the customer has acknowledged receipt.

What are people buying? Beauty products from Japan and Korea, foodstuffs from all over the world, and limited edition collectibles from Japan. This year’s bestsellers include Ichiran Ramen packets from Japan, Kraft Handi Snacks from the US, the limited edition Adidas 3D mesh bag which travellers brought back from Australia, Hong Kong and UK.

Unique requests included also include commemorative 100 baht banknotes featuring the late Thai king, coffee beans from a store in a small alley in Paris and even PSLE assessment books because they were sold out in Singapore!

Often, because products are cheaper overseas, it’s still worth getting them through Airfrov like Nan milk formula from Australia, which cost S$160 for six tins instead of three tins here. “And you’d save over S$50 to buy Jo Malone cologne from the UK, and save 20 per cent for Pandora charms if you buy them in Australia,” says Mr Cai.


Singapore shoppers are the top customers (over 700) in Southeast Asia of this Japanese start-up, says CEO Ryuto Matsuda who’s also an antique dealer licensed by the Japanese police department.

Top shopping categories are fashion, followed by electric guitars, Japanese car parts, fishing tackles and bike helmets. “As for unusual requests, I’ve had Singapore shoppers asking for the Furo Oke (the wooden Japanese bath tub, and the Namahage tribal festival mask.”

The average spend of the Singapore shopper is 16,276 yen (S$203), although the average Hong Konger spends at least twice the amount.

Mr Matsuda is an art auction agent who started his business in Yokohama City in 2011. His first customer was an Australian who wanted to buy a Shisa (lion-dog) statue. He had the advantage because very few retailers ship outside of Japan and even if you find what you want online, the store may not accept a Singapore credit card.

“Some buyers may have forgotten to buy a souvenir, or they’re interested in buying limited edition products sold exclusively in Japan,” he says.

Personal Shopper Japan charges 10 per cent of the total item cost, with a minimum charge of 1,500 yen (S$19) for each store. So if you receive a Christmas gift pack of squid ink cheese crackers and green tea granola from Kyoto, you’ll know the real truth: Santa’s workshop isn’t in the North Pole anymore – he’s moved to cyberspace.

This story was originally published in The Business Times