SUT_3_mainMr Gan (extreme left), Joshua (centre) and Julian hope the retail experience centre will educate consumers on what goes into a piece of furniture. Photo: Sam Yeo

In the first part of a four-week series, three companies share with Aaron Tan their stories of how they expanded from humble beginnings to make their mark at home and overseas.

The Sunday Times
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September 6, 2015

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FACED with slowing demand for its products from customers in Europe, Singapore furniture manufacturer Koda decided to set its sights closer to home.

While the company was hit by the weak export market – its focus since its founding in 1972 – the turning point came in 2011, when it saw potential demand for its furniture in Asia.

“That’s when we decided to start Commune, our retail arm that offers furniture suited for urban living environments, where space is a constraint,” says Mr Joshua Koh, chief financial officer at Koda.

Koda, best known for its wooden dining sets, was founded by Mr Koh’s grandfather, Koh Teng Kwee.

Mr Koh’s father James is the managing director, while his brother Julian is the brains behind Commune.

Situated in Millenia Walk, Commune showcases the brand’s modern minimalist, industrial and retro- style furniture and has a cafe for customers to chill out over coffee.

“Commune is about bringing people together,” says Julian. “It’s also where people can learn how furniture can play a part in turning homes into spaces that encourage them to build families and make friends.”

Saturated market

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Like any new retailer, the initial years were tough, as the brand had to compete in a saturated furniture retail market.

“We struggled with uncertainty as Millenia Walk was mostly empty then,” Julian says. “We also faced scepticism from other rivals who questioned our decision to open a new store in a market that was not doing well.”

However, Mr Gan Shee Wen, Koda’s vice-president of marketing and a cousin of the Koh brothers, says the company stayed focused and undeterred, as it knew it had a lifestyle concept that would attract a following.

Moreover, as a retailer under a furniture manufacturing company, Commune can also enjoy economies of scale and avoid hefty middleman fees for sourcing and distribution.

Sure enough, the Commune concept took off quickly, largely through word of mouth. Today, the brand has expanded its footprint beyond Singapore to China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia.

Following its success, Commune had been looking at ways to take its retail experience to the next level – most notably through a newly launched retail experience centre at Koda’s corporate headquarters in Defu Lane.

Mood boards

“Our retail experience centre has consultants on hand to facilitate the design of customers’ homes,” says Julian.

“Customers can create their own mood boards to visualise how the furniture will look in their homes, complete with samples of materials such as laminates from Lamitak and paint from Nippon. In future, customers could even visualise their homes using technology,” he adds.

Joshua hopes the retail experience centre, which was developed with support from Spring Singapore, will also educate consumers on what goes into a piece of furniture. “Many Singaporeans often don’t know what they’re buying, like the types of material used to make the furniture, and the manufacturing process that ensures a product will last,” he says.

Moving forward, Koda hopes to replicate its Commune retail experience centre across its growing network of concept stores in the region. At home, where retail space is expensive, it is looking to open smaller stores in town and encourage consumers to buy products from its online store.

At the same time, the company will continue to roll out new products quickly to stay ahead of the pack. “Because we have both manufacturing and design capabilities, we can design something today and bring it to market in just three months,” Julian says.

For more information on the retail sector and stories on how retailers have built their capabilities, please visit www.spring.gov.sg/retail or email lifestyle_division@spring.gov.sg.