Taking merchandising from brick-and-mortar to the digital age

  • Threes & Tees offers end-to-end solution for merchandising, including design
  • ‘When customers buy into your brand’s message, they buy into your brand’
Taking merchandising from brick-and-mortar to the digital age

THE number ‘3’ is a pretty significant one in Ija Mohan’s life: He was born on May 3, his first name is made up of three letters and his full name adds up the number three according to numerology. He has also just formed his third venture, hoping that the third time’s the charm.
 
The founder and chief executive officer (pic above) of Threes & Tees certainly has confidence and enthusiasm on his side. “This is going to be super-disruptive when it takes off,” he tells Digital News Asia (DNA) during a recent chat.
 
Threes & Tees is a digital merchandising platform that takes care of all a brand’s merchandising needs, from e-commerce, payment and procurement to fulfilment and even design. “We’re offering a turnkey, end-to-end solution for a brand’s merchandising needs so that you can focus on your core business,” he says.
 
“For example, the core business of DNA is content – you don’t want someone in your small team having to manage orders, deal with suppliers or worry about merchandising when it’s not your business.
 
“So what Threes & Tees does is remove that concern. We can merchandise your brand without you having to do anything – no need to allocate resources, no need to worry about responding to customer email, etc.,” he adds.
 
It’s not just about brands and businesses, says Ija. “Today, there are lot of portals in Malaysia producing great content, like The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini, DNA and all – and there is an opportunity for these portals to convert their website traffic into merchandise sales,” he adds.
 
Ija’s foray into the branding and merchandising world came with his first venture, a family business which was a restaurant called Spicy Corner located in Petaling Jaya. With no marketing budget to speak of, he took to social media to broadcast the brand.
 
This was in the early days of Twitter in Malaysia, and Spicy Corner was one of the first small businesses to leverage on the microblog, getting a lot of traction at some of the first few unofficial ‘tweet-ups’ in the country. But the restaurant itself went through some brick-and-mortar issues and finally closed down.
 
His next venture was Ziccotees, founded in 2010, an online platform that allowed individuals and organisations to have custom t-shirts made. That business chugged along fitfully for the most part, but never seemed destined to really take off.
 
Indeed, Threes & Tees is essentially Ija’s pivot of Ziccotees, and much of what happened with his first two experiences have informed his current startup: That there are gaps in how most companies approach merchandising.
 
“Most of the companies we talk to, when we say ‘merchandising,’ they immediate think of t-shirts or mugs with their logos on them. But people don’t want to buy merchandise with logos on them; they want to buy something that’s relevant to them,” he says.
 
An example, Ija says, would be like those Hard Rock Café t-shirts. People don’t buy and wear t-shirts that say ‘Hard Rock Café,’ they buy t-shirts that say ‘Hard Rock Café Phuket.’
 
“It says ‘I was at Phuket.’ It says something about them. So we tell our corporate partners, don’t worry so much about getting your logo on your merchandise, but think about getting your brand’s message on the merchandise. Which would be more relevant to your customer?” he says.
 
Taking merchandising from brick-and-mortar to the digital ageBrands can also get whimsical with their messaging, such as a coffee bar franchise with ‘Addicted to coffee’ t-shirts, or a kopitiam restaurant with ‘Kopitiam is my style’ mugs.

“You don’t feel like you’re promoting the company’s brand or business, but because it’s relevant to you and your lifestyle, or it’s just a cool message, you don’t mind buying such a t-shirt and wearing it,” says Ija.

 
“When customers buy into your brand’s message, they buy into your brand, indirectly.
 
“When we tell this to companies, they get thrown off because many are not used to thinking this way about merchandising.
 
“So for now, we have a design team that helps these companies brainstorm to bridge this gap and identify what their brand’s message is,” he adds.
 
Barriers and competition
Taking merchandising from brick-and-mortar to the digital age

The Threes & Tees team has seven people at its core, but can fluctuate from that number to about 13 at any one time because the company is working with some colleges to have their design students on internship programmes.
 
Its core team does not have any technical people in it however, which is Ija’s major focus now. The digital merchandising platform was built on a generic CMS (content management system) that the company customised for its own use.
 
This is pretty much transparent to customers when they first sign on because the team will do all the necessary tweaking for them to establish their storefront. But Ija has more ambitious plans, and these will require a core technical team to build a fully-automated backend.
 
And that requires money. The self-funded startup is in discussions with two possible investors, and has even just submitted an application for a grant from Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd, an agency under Malaysia’s Ministry of Finance.
 
“We want to hire a development team to actually build this customised platform where customers wanting to set up a storefront can do so at 3:30 in the morning,” Ija says.
 
Such a “super-automated” self-service system, requiring little or no intervention from the Threes & Tees team, will also allow the startup to scale its business and ‘tier’ its revenue model.
 
“Right now we don’t charge customers to come on board and our design consultation, at least for the first three to six designs, is free, just to get your storefront up,” says Ija.
 
“Once we have our customised platform up, however, we will have multiple layers – so you can have the free version, but it will be from our site, where you will be redirected to our domain. The paid version, a subscription service, will place a widget in your domain so traffic remains with you,” he adds.
 
Threes & Tees is not the first digital merchandising platform, Ija notes. There is Teespring in the United States which recently raised US$20 million.
 
“The model has proven successful in the United States, but they’re not looking at Asia yet – right now, if a Malaysian company wants to do something with a US digital merchandising company, it will take five to six weeks and cost you about two to three times more than it should,” he adds.
 
There’s another aspect to what Threes & Tees is doing too, and that is being a matchmaker between brands and designers.
 
“While many corporate customers may have their own inhouse design teams, they’re so tied up with their regular marketing channels and methods that they can’t think outside the box,” he notes.
 
Backing from Behance ambassador
Taking merchandising from brick-and-mortar to the digital age 
So what Threes & Tees has done on its website is to set up special sections for Brands and Designers.
 
“Designers are like brands, but they don’t have the reach that brands do. When brands drive traffic to our website, they get the eyeballs because of the designers’ content.
 
“So what we want to do is to create a platform for campaigns – when a brand comes on board but has no design ideas, we can provide, say, 100 designers to compete, and the winner gets the campaign,” Ija says.
 
Many of the designers Threes & Tees spoke to also referred Ija and his team to digital artist Muid Latif. When they finally met, Muid was so excited that he’s come on board as an advisor to Threes & tees, Ija says.
 
Muid founded the Digital Malaya Project (DMP) to support the creative multimedia industry in 2001, and was the first digital artist in Malaysia to perform a live digital art show, which he did with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. He was also involved with the Malaysian Artist for Unity project to promote harmony in the country, working with indie film producers and directors such as Pete Teo and Yasmin Ahmad.
 
He is also the Malaysian ambassador for Behance, the social network portfolio platform which Adobe Inc acquired in December, 2012, integrating it with the Adobe Creative Cloud service. Behance also allows creative professionals to showcase their portfolios and business to source for design talent.
 
“Our strategy with Behance is to tap into all these creative communities in other South-East Asian countries,” says Ija.
 
“We want to allow Filipino companies to tap into Filipino designers, and Indonesian companies to tap into Indonesian designers, etc., so that it’s super-relevant at the local level, as well as the regional level,” he adds.
 
Taking merchandising from brick-and-mortar to the digital ageBring SMEs into the digital age
 
Those hopes for a regional play got a boost too when fitness franchise True Fitness became Threes & Tees most recent corporate customer, saying it wants to use the platform for its operations in other South-East Asian markets.
 
“This is an important deal for us because it gives us the ability to cross borders – getting a multinational allows us to grow organically into the regional market,” says Ija.
 
Most of Threes &Tees clients would be familiar to DNA readers – many of them are startups themselves, such as 1337 Accelerator, PlateCulture and Wedding.com.my; as well as tech blog Amanz.my and news portals such as Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insider. Others are more established businesses, such as BFM Radio, Leadernomics and Starcom MediaVest Group.
 
But it is also getting small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the brick-and-mortar space to look into using digital technology to enhance and expand their business.
 
This in fact is what the Malaysian Government has been pushing for with initiatives like the Digital Malaysia programme, which seeks to transform the nation into a ‘digital economy.’
 
According to Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), the strategic initiatives in Digital Malaysia include empowering the next generation workforce with digital skillsets and the productive use of digital tools; and also to drive technology adoption amongst Malaysian SMEs.
 
While many foreign e-commerce companies such as Rakuten and Rocket’s Internet’s Lazada and Zalora are helping local merchants set up electronic storefronts, Threes & Tees is looking at a relatively untapped space right now: Helping any kind of Malaysian business or organisation generate extra revenue via digital merchandise storefronts.
 
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