November 22, 2015 1:00 pm JST
The new app economy

It's now easy to buy Tokyo Banana treats in Singapore

TOMOMI KIKUCHI, Nikkei staff writer

With honestbee, users can ask college students and housewives buy and deliver groceries and other items.

SINGAPORE -- A new breed of app that helps people satisfy their cravings for overseas goodies -- or even for things that can be picked up at the grocery store -- is taking off in Southeast Asia.

     The services these apps provide are gaining favor with a growing number of gotta-have-it-now consumers in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

     Every day, posts are made on Airfrov, an app that was hatched here, begging for products that are difficult to find in the city-state. Someone might request three packages of Tokyo Bananas, spongecake treats with banana-cream centers. The confections are available from shops in big Tokyo train stations and airports. If a traveler to Tokyo spots the request, he or she can choose to buy the goods for the person who requested them ... then pass them on to the person with the craving and get a delivery fee.

     Think of it as for-profit traveling. Well, kind of.

     The app comes with a message feature so users can coordinate purchases and prevent acquisitions of the wrong item.

     The requester settles the transaction by credit card, and the traveler, upon returning home, can either hand-deliver the item or drop it off at Airfrov's offices. Airfrov charges 2 Singapore dollars ($1.41) and a 7% transaction fee to the requesters.

     Co-founder Cai Li says he got the idea for the app because his girlfriend was always asking him to bring cosmetics, bags and other things home from his overseas trips. Singapore has a number of large retailers and an abundance of foreign brands, but because the domestic market is small, there are a lot of crave-worthy goods not sold here.

     Airfrov's users now number around 17,000, of which 70% are women between the ages of 20 and 35. A lot of requests for food, toys and cosmetics go through the app. To prevent users from requesting that an unsuspecting traveler pick up something that might be illegal back home, like many pharmaceutical items, the app provider is strengthening its monitoring of requests.

     The co-founder says the app's name is an abbreviation of sorts for "travel by air, to and fro, very frequently."

     More smartphone owners are using Airfrov and similar apps every day. Honestbee, provides a service that lets users ask dedicated staff to go grocery shopping for them. Users select products from partner stores displayed in the app, and shopping staff members -- known as "bees" -- then buy the goods and deliver them in one or two hours.

     The shopping staff is composed primarily of those who want to work on a flexible schedule, such as students, housewives and retirees.

     Started here in July, honestbee was introduced in Hong Kong in mid-October. It will be in Taiwan in a few months, and by June will be offered in six other major Asian cities.

     In mid-October, investors, including a co-founder of YouTube and a former chief financial officer of Facebook, invested a combined $15 million in the business.

     Another app, HappyFresh, available in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, has partnered with more than 30 supermarkets. Its proxy shoppers can pick up and deliver more than 60,000 items.

     Be Lazee lets people send texts asking for help with "chores" like shopping or taking a pet for a walk. The app was created in Malaysia and is also available in Singapore and Hong Kong.

     Southeast Asia's fast-paced urbanization is changing the makeup of homes. There is an increase in single-person households, and Singapore finds itself with a large number of dual-income households, many of which employ nannies and housekeepers.

     Now that smartphones are taking hold in the region, apps are starting to come to the rescue of people stressed for time but in need of daily necessities. Or craving Tokyo Banana treats.

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