Why E-commerce Doesn't Work in Singapore
Confirmation E-mail from SilkAir

Thank you for booking with SilkAir. We appreciate your patronage and look forward to serving you again in the near future.

SilkAir Reservations Ticketing Services

This is a computer-generated e-mail message. Do not respond at this e-mail address. You may not use, reproduce, or transfer this message or its contents into any medium without the written permission of SilkAir Limited.
I'm no lawyer, but as I read this passage, I am not allowed to print, forward, or refer to my own itinerary.  I especially like the prohibition on "use" of the message.  Since I am not allowed to even show this passage without permission from SilkAir, I have written to them for permission to use my itinerary.

To summarize, if I had booked tickets through my friendly neighbourhood travel agent, I would have received attentive service, home delivery of my tickets, and paid when I flew or shortly thereafter.  Instead I have to pick up my own tickets at SilkAir's office, during business hours on a week day, and I had my credit card charged immediately, before I even picked up the tickets.  Oh, and nobody else can pick them up for me, it has to be the credit card holder.

Score for www.silkair.com:  2/10
Online e-commerce has failed to take off in Singapore, unlike the way it has in much of the rest of the world.  While cultural differences are blamed, a much simpler explanation is available - the web sites and business models here are just plain BAD.

The list of sins is long.  First is a confusion about the nature of the relationship between buyer and seller.  Most web sites start with the assumption that they are doing you a big favour by even existing.  As a customer, you are expected to provide complete personal details including your national ID card number, before you are even allowed to see the catalogue.

On-line shopping is supposed to be MORE convenient, not less convenient than shopping in person.

Sin two.  Horrible user interface.  I take as my gold standard, http://www.amazon.com.  The example is there for anyone to look at, study, and emulate.  Instead, we get horrible plain text, unsorted listings of products, no pictures, no details, and often no prices.

Sin three.  Bad pricing.  I have yet to see a site that offers better pricing than retail stores.  So much for cutting out the middleman.  The worst offenders are computer hardware/software vendors and travel web sites, where the prices are often HIGHER than retail. 

But enough theoretical ranting.  Let's look at actual cases.
First up, the fine folks at SilkAir, the regional airline owned by Singapore Airlines.  They have a relatively simple web site on which it is possible to book tickets.  You have to find it first though.  For some bizarre reason, they use www.silkair.net instead of .com. 

UPDATE:  While checking this article, I now note that www.skilkair.net redirects to http://www.singaporeair.com - with no mention of SilkAir.  A check on http://www.silkair.com. shows that the site is now located there.

There is a ton of legal verbiage to get through before you are permitted to buy a ticket.  And just to make sure you suffer for your desire to do business with them, they will not mail the tickets to you.  You have to go to their office to pick up the tickets.  They have one office.  It does not open on weekends.  It is only open from Mon-Fri : 0830hrs - 1730hrs.  That should discourage pretty much everybody from doing business with them, but I decided to press on.

Payment is by credit card, but your account is deducted immediately.  Having provided my credit card number,  I then received this gem of a confirmation email.
Our next example of missing the point is ACMAbooks at: http://www.acmabooks.com/

When they first launched, I was pretty excited to have an on-line bookstore in Singapore.  While Amazon remains the epitome of excellent e-commerce, their shipping charges to Singapore negate the value of their site. 

Clicking on the site the first time was the usual surreal combination of authoritarian demands for info and terrible usability.  Unlike the simply awful sites that exist, ACMA was at least stylish.  Very stylish.  Completely, unusably, irretrievably stylish.  Nothing got in the way of presentation - speed, appropriateness, selling books.  Their business model seemed to be: get orders at full list price, place order with US distributor, wait several weeks, charge shipping for getting books to Singapore.

It was all so pointless I just gave up and wrote them off.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email with an uncharacteristically candid mea culpa, in which ACMA admitted that things had been less than stellar to date, but that they had listened and learned, and were relaunching with a new purpose and focus.  And a $10 off coupon.

Well I can be as generous as the next fellow, and believe in giving people second chances - especially when they pay me.  I dutifully logged on and tried out their site.


Well, they are still no Amazon.  Their main page is cluttered with ads, most of the listings don't have pictures of the books or synopses, and the recommendation engine needs work.  Not very interesting. 

I decided to persevere and ordered a couple of books that I couldn't find at Borders or Kinokuniya.  Usual mumbo jumbo, and once again, my credit card was charged immediately.  Indicated delivery time was 14-18 working days.
And now comes the good part.  A very stylish email arrived a couple of weeks later with the following pronouncement:
Apparently ACMA's supply chain management lacks precision, and I am supposed to remain at home for the next 2-3 business days so that I can receive my books. 

At my current billing rate, this represents many thousands of dollars of my time. 

I sure hope they can afford it...

Score for www.acmabooks:  4/10  (The extra two points are because they are so STYLISH)
Your books have arrived and your order [43313] has been dispatched for delivery.

Kindly ensure that there will be someone available to receive the delivery at the stated address over the next 2-3 days (Singapore) 4-5 days (Malaysia). Deliveries will be made during office hours.