INDULGING in recreation has typically involved paying for that particular spa session, bottle of wine or dress. And while the Internet has sprouted ways to shop beyond walking into a store or picking up the phone, a la carte's been strangely de rigueur in a country otherwise passionate about buffets.
That's increasingly changed in the past two years, with subscription services such as VanityTrove offering weekly mystery boxes for a monthly subscription fee. And while many have focused on cosmetics and beauty products - usually aimed at women - others have flourished that offer everything from e-books to beer to VIP access to art exhibitions.
Novel Haven (novelhaven.com), for example, started last Valentine's Day to bridge the gap between avid Singapore readers and Amazon, which still hasn't launched its globally popular Kindle e-book service here. Offering packages between $85 and $500, the e-book club lets customers borrow up to 10 e-books at a time. With the $500 plan entitling you to read 100 e-books, that works out to $5 per title. If an e-book's not already in the library, Novel Haven will get it for you.
Even better, Novel Haven's 300 sq ft shop space at Tiong Bahru gives members a refuge to browse, read in peace while sipping Nespresso coffee, and buy Kindle e-book readers and accessories such as cases and covers. And non-members can dip their toes into the experience by paying $10 an hour for a free flow of coffee and tea and unfettered access to the e-book library.
Although founder and managing director Claurene Chin declined to be interviewed, her customers are a reasonably vocal bunch on Novel Haven's Facebook page and seem pleased with the service. Novel Haven's a great example of how traditional clubs for printed books are transitioning into the digital age. And unlike a purely digital product such as subscription service Deezer (which is the successor to CD and vinyl clubs), Novel Haven shows that unique offerings can be spawned from a savvy marriage between physical hospitality and disembodied bits and bytes.
An equally focused service is The Beer Cellar (www.thebeercellar.asia), which sends subscribers a monthly box consisting of interesting and unusual craft beers. Each box contains a dozen 330ml bottles, equally split among three beer styles. Customers can be confident that they won't be getting run-of-the-mill brews because some of the beers are only available as limited releases in Singapore, while others are specifically imported for each monthly box.
It helps to have a specialist running this sort of operation, and Charles Guerrier is the man behind last year's Craft Beer Week in addition to having been involved in beer-related ventures such as Jibiru, Oosters and Beerfest Asia. He's currently handling sales and event rentals for Lowe Worldwide Refrigeration in Singapore and South-east Asia.
"We aim to engage and educate the drinker with tasting notes, brewery histories, food pairings and interesting articles on craft beer," says Mr Guerrier. "Unlike in the United States, UK or Australia, nowhere in Asia has a monthly craft beer club, so I thought it was time to start one in Singapore given the increased number of craft beers being produced and imported here," he adds.
A five-month subscription costs $425, which works out to $85 a box and just over $7 a bottle, which is a good deal especially for rarer labels. And those unsure about the exclusivity of the brews can try out a single box for $95. Shipping and handling are free so there are no hidden costs.
"People's lives here are becoming increasingly busy and a subscription service enables them to pay once - or set up a monthly billing - and not have to worry about ordering and paying again until the subscription comes up for renewal; whatever products or services they have subscribed to will then arrive automatically without them having to worry about them again," says Mr Guerrier.
Then there's Survival Chic, which is less single-minded and therefore also more flexible. It straddles middle ground between high-end social networks and concierge services by charging members $450 a year for a host of benefits that include 30 per cent off the bill at 50 restaurants, including alcohol. Members, who receive email newsletters, also get invited to exclusive events such as gallery openings, yacht trips and polo matches, along with free tickets to concerts.
Although members typically make back their membership cost within using their Survival Chic card three or four times, director Christophe Ferreira says that the service typically appeals to people who have less time than money, and want to quickly choose the best things to do from a list of reliable recommendations.
"They trust us and get to choose from a list of restaurants and services, and at Survival Chic events also get to meet people who are useful to them at work," says Mr Ferreira, a former lawyer who founded the business in 2009 with his wife, Virginia Brumby.
Fabrice Desmarescaux, a partner at executive search firm Spencer Stuart, has been a Survival Chic member for eight months and uses it mainly for restaurant recommendations and discounts. "It's a good deal because I eat at restaurants that aren't cheap, so if I have a meal that costs $200 a head, 30 per cent off makes a big difference," he says. "I remember that one of my bills at The Tippling Club was $1,000 so I got $300 off, which was significant," the 48-year-old adds.
Survival Chic eight-person team has also moved into travel recommendations and events planning, although the latter is something that isn't advertised and is handled on a per-request basis. "We're clear about what we can't do - we won't do weddings, for example - but we're happy to help people with things like birthday parties," says Ms Brumby.
Although there are a few locals in Survival Chic's 1,000-odd member's list, Ms Brumby says that they've never marketed to locals because they "wouldn't want to presume to tell locals how to enjoy their own city".
The result is an almost exclusively expatriate client base. Explains Ms Brumby: "Many were well connected when they were in London or wherever they were based, and now want to become connected again but don't have the time to invest in exploring and networking thanks to 60 or 70-hour work weeks".
Kathy Dunderdale definitely appreciates the social aspect of Survival Chic - so much so that she's been a member for three years and has no intention of cancelling. "We've definitely met interesting people at Survival Chic events and attending them now gives us a chance to catch up with friends," says Ms Dunderdale, who is in her 50s, as is her husband, Ian, a senior vice-president at Hydra Energy Holdings.
"When we first moved here nine years ago from Texas where we'd been for three years, I definitely used Survival Chic to get started and if you want to, the monthly newsletters give you something to do every week, and going to events such as art gallery openings is how my husband and I got involved in the local art scene and started collecting art," adds Ms Dunderdale, who is a therapist in her own acupressure business, Jin Shin Juyutsu Singapore.
Even subscription services that include cosmetics and beauty products are open to including products further afield as demand evolves.
"I think the question is, why not," says Melle Xu, marketing and PR manager at new monthly subscription delivery service, Black Box (blackbox.sg), which is set to send out its first black box on Feb 25. "The underlying appeal here is convenience, as time is fast becoming a precious and sought-after commodity."
Although the first black box leans towards cosmetics and toiletries from the likes of L'Oreal and Nuxe - with an exception being cereal bar brand Nature Valley - Black Box is explicitly unisex and not focused on beauty products. In fact, the company is currently in talks with brands in industries as diverse as pet care, travel and cars - areas that definitely appeal to both men and women. And black boxes may become increasingly focused on a particular industry. Although Black Box subscriptions are currently free, it might start charging in future.
"The Internet and e-commerce have changed the way we consume things now, from entertainment to grocery shopping," says Ms Xu. "Supermarkets have jumped on the bandwagon just to cater to this new breed of consumer who is too busy to head to the supermarket when he or she already knows what he or she needs to get it, and can do it online and have it delivered to the doorstep. So instead of paying for the overheads (of a physical store), they opt instead to pay for delivery, which translates to convenience," she adds.
"The same applies for products. It's easy to fill in the subscription form, submit it, then sit back and wait for the samples to reach him/her. People are open to it, they welcome it, because the time they have can always be better spent, whether it be with their children, significant others, families or friends, or simply pursuing hobbies in life, or catching up on rest."
Bellabox (bellabox.sg) is more in the mainstream in the sense of it sticking to women's beauty products for now. But founder Emily Hamilton says that in spite of that general focus, it will still include lifestyle products whenever appropriate. Part of the reason for the focus on beauty is bellabox's existing relationship with some 250 beauty brands. These entrenched relationships mirror many of its competitors, and suggest that slowness among some subscription businesses to branch out from beauty products could be due more to the inertia that comes with success rather than a lack of demand for other goods and services.
"To date we have shipped more than 60,000 boxes across Australia and Singapore over one year," says Ms Hamilton, 35, who runs bellabox with her twin sister, Sarah. "We are growing 20 per cent month-on-month. Our company broke even before it raised A$1.3 million in January this year in series A funding," adds the Australian who has been based here for more than five years, and is also managing director of digital marketing company Teracomm APAC.
"This funding will be used to broaden the depth of the management team and significantly raise awareness of bellabox within the region, allowing the business to continue its growth, particularly in the area of its e-commerce site, customer experience and subscription numbers, thereby helping secure our position as the clear leader in all our markets."
Not every type of product is suitable for subscription services. For example, a subscription for new vinyl records or even a rental service for used vinyl wouldn't work here, says House of Turntables owner Kevin Pang, because of high rentals and a vinyl market that's far below its peak in the 80s. But it's clear that the subscription business model, which allows busy bees to pay once and forget about it until goodies turn up in the mail, appeals to the market here and doesn't show signs of disappearing soon.
Conversely, some businesses are tailor-made for subscriptions. Mr Ferreira says that charging per event or ticket wouldn't make sense for his business, especially since some tickets have been given to Survival Chic for free.