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Business Trends

For Thais, online shopping is a social activity

Purchases via social networks make up 20% of country's e-commerce

Smartphone-wielding Thais are some of the world's most avid internet and social media users.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thais looking to buy clothes, fruits and vegetables, cars or real estate are increasingly likely to go browsing in the same place: social media.

Social commerce is redefining retail in the Southeast Asian country, where smartphones became widespread before PCs are the go-to means of communication. Merchants large and small now know they need a strong social presence, and the trend is creating new opportunities for a variety of e-commerce players, like online payment services and parcel delivery companies.

The numbers tell the story. Consumers who place orders through social media make up 51% of all online shoppers in Thailand, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found. The ratio is well above the world average of 16% and also significantly higher than the 32% for India, 31% for Malaysia and 27% for China.

Last year, social commerce sales in Thailand amounted to 137 billion baht ($4.14 billion), making up about 20% of total e-commerce transactions, according to the country's Electronic Transactions Development Agency.

Live streaming and chat features on sites like Facebook help store owners sell their wares. This is how Nong, the owner of a shop for plus-size apparel, connected with customers one weekend morning in June.

Nong, whose store is located in the northern city of Lampang, is neither a celebrity nor a well-known social media influencer. But her viewer count quickly surpassed 100. Appearing in front of the camera, she showed various garments and communicated with the prospective shoppers through text chat.

Nong, who owns a clothing shop in northern Thailand, uses Facebook live streaming to sell plus-size clothes.

Her prompt responses to questions like "Do you have different colors?" encouraged the viewers to go ahead and buy.

After the live stream, she ironed out the delivery and payment details over Facebook chat or the Line instant messaging app.

Nong is one of the many Thai shop owners who have taken to Facebook, Instagram and other social networks. Much of the social shopping scene is populated with small businesses, though numerous corporate retailers also have social media accounts for online sales.

As in other Southeast Asian countries, e-commerce sites in Thailand have a tougher time than in major Western economies or Japan. This is due to the relatively low penetration of both PCs and credit cards.

Armed with smartphones, however, Thais spend more time online than anyone else in the world, according to surveys by Google and others. Most of that time is believed to be spent on social networks: Bangkok has the largest population of active Facebook users of any city worldwide, at 22 million, according to British research company We Are Social.

All sorts of companies aim to cash in on the rise of social commerce.

Kasikornbank, a major Thai bank, announced on June 25 a partnership with Facebook on online payments. The bank's new service, Pay with K Plus, allows internet shoppers to instantly pay through Facebook Messenger without entering an account number or switching screens.

Kerry Express, a parcel delivery service from Hong Kong, plans to increase the number of pickup points in Thailand for small packages weighing 30kg or less to 2,500, from 1,500, by the end of the year. In April, the company partnered with the operator of an elevated railway to set up unmanned pickup points at stations.

State-run Thailand Post is also capitalizing. Last year it launched a new delivery service for small packages that lets users pay the fees with their smartphones -- no standing in line at the post office required.

Parcel delivery company Kerry Express collects packages at FamilyMart convenience stores across Thailand and plans to increase its pickup points. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

Thailand Post's door-to-door delivery business, set up five years ago, now contributes nearly 50% of its overall sales.

Online shopping sites are introducing their own social features as well.

Taiwan-based Shopee offers various social functions, including buyer-seller chats and the ability to see items bought by friends. While most Shopee users are individuals, over 1,700 companies and brands also have presences on the site, including supermarket chain Big C.

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