From Maxi-Cash To Maxi-Dash

Local pawnbroker Maxi-Cash goes into luxury business, offering merchandise that are distinguished by the euphemism, pre-loved

Maxi Cash store @ Lucky PlazaMaxi-Cash at Lucky Plaza

The selection is impressive: a major-league medley of Chanels, Hermèses, Pradas, Guccis, Rolexes, Cartiers, Panerais, Audemars Piguets, and all the gold jewellery that you would need to make a very impressive trousseau. These were all available at the launch of LuxeStyle, a new brand by pawnshop chain Maxi-Cash. This, however, isn’t the pawnshop of your grandmother’s time; this is the pawnshop of today, one with verve, if not persuasive style.

And it was with palpable vigour that Maxi-Cash launched their sub-brand at the Grand Hyatt’s function rooms called Residences yesterday, accompanied by visual merchandising and styling workshop calibrated to impress. The major high-end brands were represented with such force that you would have thought that this was preface to the International Luxury Conference. Many of the items were in such pristine condition that it was hard to guess, at least initially, that they were second-hand. Could this be why Maxi-Cash is creating a parallel luxury shopping experience for those less inclined to pay full retail? Re-sellable is without doubt a very attractive condition for a pawnbroker.

LuxeStyle is, according to Maxi-Cash’s CEO Ng Leok Cheng, the company’s “latest pre-loved luxury retail line.” Despite what that suggests, LuxeStyle is less a line—such as their own brand of jewellery LeGold—than a retail concept that caters to an economic climate generating desirous wants and the appetence for material goods with appreciable value. Mr Ng added, “the objective of LuxeStyle is to provide more than just a transaction, we aim to be the leading styling resource in Singapore.” But when the members of his staff were asked where the displayed luxury items were from, they would only say, “we have our sources”, at the same time refuting the suggestion that the merchandise is unredeemed items from their pawnshops.

Maxi Cash store @ Lucky Plaza pic 2Maxi-Cash is also a retailer of their own jewellery brand called LeGold

Truth be told, we’ve never stepped into a Maxi-Cash outlet before. So we visited one—a branch on Victoria Street. Unlike the pawnshops of the past, at Maxi-Cash (and a host of others) you won’t be approaching a counter and peering through the grille. Here, glass-top display units, recalling those in department stores of the ’70s, line both sides of the store and house the stuff for sale in a manner as inviting as any jewellery shop. We did not see a single handbag or timepiece. Maybe it’s the store’s location: just next to the New Bugis Street (aka Albert Street), a veritable day-and-night pasar malam. So we thought we should check out what is touted as “the first-ever pawnshop to begin operations in Orchard Road” instead.

Contrary to its moderately high-brow show-and-sell at the Grand Hyatt, Maxi-Cash’s Orchard Road store—specifically in Lucky Plaza, about half a kilometre away from the hotel—is a modest shop and a very small depository of luxury goods. The interior is similar to that of the Victoria Street branch; only here, one of the two store windows was filled with what LuxeStyle is about: bags, watches, and jewellery from the major fashion houses. Inside, no more bags were seen, but watches and jewellery were hard to miss.

Despite its small selection, passersby were enticed by the Maxi-Cash window. Although during the time that we spent observing, no one took the attention beyond the shop’s door, it is clear that there is considerable interest in pre-owned Chanel Classic Flap bags and the like. The selling of used luxury goods has, in the past five years, become big business, if the success and growth of brick-and-motar stores such as the American chain What Goes Around Comes Around and Fashionpile are any indication, or online sites such as the hugely popular Paris-based Vestiaire Collective, now boasting over five million members worldwide and offices in five countries.

Maxi Cash watchesWatches are a key product category in the offerings of LuxeStyle

Also known as “re-commerce”, previously mainly associated with the bigger luxury markets of the West, this trade is quickly gaining ground in Asia, where China, despite the political clamp-down on ostentation, is leading the growth in the sale of luxury goods. Consumption, as we have seen in mature markets such as Japan inevitably gives rise to disposal, which itself leads to more consumption. And there have been companies such as the Nagoya-based Komehyo—a second-hand luxury goods dealer with more than a dozen stores throughout Japan—that have led the way in retailing used products. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Komehyo has recently announced a joint venture to expand into China, underscoring the very real potential of peddling the pre-loved.

Here, Maxi-Cash’s entry into prime vintage, which according to CEO Ng Leok Cheng “was formalized this month”, is seen as somewhat belated. Competitor Money Max has introduced Love Luxury, a marketing initiative that even piques with programs such as “Learn How to be a Smart Fashionista”. Before pawnbrokers came into the picture as a serious player, brick-and-mortar operators such as Madam Milan and The Attic Place, and online portals such as Bagnatic were taping into the slow but steady acceptance of used designer bags. But unlike many of the physical stores, the public-listed Maxi-Cash enjoys a visibility that comes with 41 outlets on our island. LuxeStyle, although not present in every one of them (13 for now), has the advantage of leveraging this network.

Pawnbroking as financial service has a long history in Singapore. In the 1800s, when it slowly enjoyed economic visibility, a pawnbroker was considered somewhat condescendingly to be a “poor man’s banker”. According to reports, Singapore’s first known Chinese pawnshop Sheng He Dang (生和当) opened in 1872. By the mid-1900, pawnbroking was a thriving business that, interestingly, saw mostly Hakka proprietors. The pawnshop that many remember from their younger days took its form and look from those that emerged in the ’70s, when the pawnshop was starting to be seen in more places. At that time, registered pawnshops totalled 50. Despite the advent of modern credit products, pawnshops have not succumbed to the threat of obsolescence. In fact, according to the Ministry of Law website, there are presently 224 registered pawnshops here.

Maxi-Cash launch product displayThe product display at the launch of LuxeStyle

That pawnshops such as Maxi-Cash have to change is part of the shifts that have affected all manner of retail. These days, people not only pawn but sell their prized possessions as well at a pawnshop. The re-selling of unredeemed pawned items or those sold outright to the pawnshop should move to the same momentum as any modern retailer. Yet, none (as well as specialist re-sellers) has approached the sale of luxury items the way Komehyo and their Japanese counterparts have: set the goods in a surrounding that they deserve.

Instead, the luxury bags, watches and jewellery share space with existing merchandise in display confines that are not initially built for their more posh inhabitants. It would seem, therefore, that the target audience of many pawnshops-turn-purveyors-of-luxury-goods is more attracted to the lower price (in the case of Maxi-Cash, “at least”, the staff chirpily pronounced, 30 percent less than regular retail) than the trappings of luxury.

At Maxi-Cash’s Lucky Plaza outlet, flanked by a minimart that goes by the name Asagao and another pawnshop, the competitor Money Max, the presence of LuxeStyle is not discerned, except for what is seen in the Orchard Road-facing window. Inside, members of the staff are friendly enough, but amid the loud chatter of a seller trying to get a good price for what could be his wife’s valuables, it is easy to forget that it was bags—maybe watches—that you had come in for.

LuxeStyle is in Maxi-Cash stores islandwide. Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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