From a 40 sq ft basement shop to over 280 stores around the world.
If you live in Singapore or Malaysia and you are looking for a place to get your beauty fix, one of your first thoughts will be to head to Sasa to grab whatever it is you need for your daily routine.
But have you ever stopped to think about how Sasa came about?
The chain of beauty shops has been around since 1978 and was founded in Hong Kong. Now, it is available in Hong Kong, Macau, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
It started off as just one small 40 sq ft store in a basement. Today, it is a multi-billion dollar listed entity operating over 280 stores with over 5,000 employees.
And it all began with one woman.
Eleanor Kwok was a saleswoman who had no experience in running a business. Her husband, Simon Kwok Siu-ming, was a parking meter repairman.
But in 1978, Eleanor wanted to start her own business and convinced her husband to join her.
“We lived in the same building above the shop. She got financial help from her mother and, without any experience [in running a business], we bought it. Within six years, we had rented all the shops in the basement to sell cosmetics," Simon shares in an interview with South China Morning Post.
The name Sasa was the original name of the business they had bought over.
“We didn’t do much business at the start and we wanted to change the name. But this would have cost HK$1,000, which was a month’s rent at the time, and we couldn’t afford it. But the name turned out to be perfect, as it’s pronounced the same all around the world.
“Whether you speak Russian, French, Italian or any dialect in China, it is always pronounced ‘sasa’," Simon explains.
Initially, Eleanor would run the business on her own with Simon helping her out at the shop, caring for their baby girl, till about 10 pm, when he would leave to his regular job as a parking meter repairman.
“I didn’t have the guts to sell cosmetics [in the beginning] … But my wife asked me to help her out when the shop was busy. At first, I blushed [when selling perfumes and cosmetics], but discovered that women valued my opinions,” Simon says.
“If I thought a perfume smelled nice, I realised that their boyfriends would like it as well, so I gained confidence. The opinions the customers gave me during the first few years helped nurture my instincts [for this business] – and money can’t buy this.”
But their success went beyond just hard work. Kwok attributes much of their success to the ability to catch a trend before it hit.
Back in the 70s, Japanese cosmetic brands like Shiseido, Kanebo and Kose were still fairly new in the market and bigger departmental stores did not want to carry them.
Spotting the niche, the Kwoks decided to bring these brands under Sasa. The same happened with Korean cosmetic brands later on.
It also managed to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon as one of the early movers. Sasa launched Sasa.com in 2000 and has since entered into partnerships with online marketplaces such as Alibaba’s Tmall and JD.com.
Of course, the road to success is paved with challenges. The Kwoks faced their first big setback in 1989 when they lost the original Sasa basement store in Causeway Bay.
“Our landlord increased the rent from HK$8,500 to HK$45,000. We were earning enough to cover this, but the landlord then rented the store to a business rival. This was around the same time as [the] June 4 [Tiananmen Square crackdown]," Simon recounts.
The turning point in the business happened when they made the risky decision to rent their first street-level shop for HK$120,000 a month.
“It was a big bet, as the rent was so much higher. We moved into the new place six months before the lease expired on the Causeway Bay shop because we didn’t want to lose our customers to the new tenant. We closed that shop, switched off all the lights, put up relocation notices and stationed part-time staff there to escort customers to the new premises.”
Business boomed and a stream of street-level Sasa outlets soon followed.
Today, Sa Sa International Holdings is a HK$14.7 billion (US$1.87 billion) cosmetics empire. Its flagship is Sasa Supreme, a snazzy, 20,000 sq ft lifestyle concept store that opened in the prime shopping district of Causeway Bay in 2013.
It just shows how much can be accomplished with hard work and determination.
Did you enjoy the story about the woman behind the Sasa empire? Read more stories on entrepreneurial women here.