|Social shopping: A Facebook group page offers clothes and other commodities to users. — VNS File Photo
by An Vu
Nguyen Phuong Thao, 25, sits amid a messy pile of clothes. Her eyes are on her desktop screen, while her hands slide over the calculator, figuring out how much she made in a recently concluded transaction.
Thao makes her living selling things on Facebook, a career that is increasingly popular among young people as social networks expand their reach. These networks were originally just for interacting with friends, but they rapidly became a place to share information, play games and engage in political discussion. Now, they are also marketplaces.
Thao previously worked for a private bank in Ha Noi, but felt she did not earn enough to justify her efforts. While seeking a new job, she came up with the idea of selling things on Facebook.
"My older sister works for an airline and she has a trusted source of commodities from Thailand. She helped me with all the transportation, so all I had to do was create an online shopping page on Facebook and send an invitation to my close friends to like it," says Thao.
Friends introduced the brand to their friends and she got more and more customers each day. She posts photos every day, eliminating the need for a physical store.
"I cannot afford to own a shop. This way, people can order clothes on Facebook, then come to my house and pick them up," she says.
In the current economic situation, many people are forced to find alternative ways to make money besides conventional jobs. Others feel they are spending too much time at the office and would prefer to work from home. For them, social network selling can be a lifesaver.
Vu Cam Giang, who owns a Facebook store called Dat Hang Nhanh (Fast Order), used to be a reporter for a local newspaper. However, she quit her job to take care of her then-two-month-old. In the two years since, she has made a living selling clothes and shoes online, mostly to stay-at-home mothers and public servants.
"At first, I sold things online out of curiosity, just for fun. Then I realised how much benefit I could get from doing it full-time," Giang says. "The advantage is that you do not have to register with the market management group or pay taxes. Also, you can save space and focus entirely on your products. Anyone can sell anything online."
Thao compared the Vietnamese trend of online shopping to the previous growth of online shopping in the West. While websites in North America and Europe "enable shoppers to access famous brands' homepages with abundant facilities", the lack of online retailers here prompts a different tactic.
"In Viet Nam, as there are not many online stores, the smartest way to sell things is to take advantage of social networks. When you own a page, you have complete control of your image. You're your own public relations representative," Thao says.
On social networks like Facebook, one "like" can result in exponential growth. When a customer hits the "like" icon, signifying that he or she believes in the product, many more shoppers will investigate the label and "like" it themselves.
Still, Facebook vendors face inconveniences that larger online retailers like Amazon and Zappos do not.
"Customers often don't meet me face to face," Thao says. "Sometimes we deliver a product, but the buyer is not there. And the image of a product can be far different from what it actually looks like."
Unlike concrete retailers, Facebook retailers don't have to spend money on advertising. But this doesn't mean image is not important. To the contrary, on social networks, image is everything. Poor PR management can instantly sink a Facebook shop.
"Doing business online means you do not need an intermediary. Hundreds of viewers see what you sell, and it costs you nothing. On the flip side, if your service is poor or you have many rivals, you can get humiliating comments," says Nguyen Hong Ngoc, who sells perfume, baby lotion and shampoo.
Once the victim of a barrage of rumours that her perfume was out of date, Ngoc learnt the dangerous side of online selling firsthand. Many homemakers believe wholeheartedly in every comment on Webtretho.com and Lamchame.com, she says.
Not everyone can be a professional online vendor. According to Nguyen The Dong, head of 123Mua Sale Division under VNG (an internet company focused on games, e-commerce and social networking), those who want to be successful "must have true passion, patience, faith and above all network knowledge". Soft skills are also significant, as "you play many roles in the virtual space like investors, administrator and sale manager". And of course, "you also need to offer valid information and clear images of your products", says Dong.
Ngoc, who is currently sketching out a long-term plan for her new website, takes a simpler view. She sees online selling as a game - albeit with slightly higher stakes.
"If I can play Happy Farm on Facebook and exchange virtual items, why can't I make ends meet by selling things to real people? All you need is enthusiasm for the business and the right policy. In the virtual world, what you reap is much greater than what you sow." — VNS