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* Thai sales via social media more than doubled in 2017
* Such sales accounted for 44% of Thai e-commerce, up from 21%
* Thais like browsing, direct communication with merchants
By Chayut Setboonsarng
SATUN, Thailand, July 1 (Reuters) - The son of a Thai fisherman, Anurak Saruethai never really took to life at sea. But seafood has been good to him.
Hawking dried shrimp, squid and fish in nightly Facebook livestreams, Anurak, who is quick with a joke and adept at interacting with customers, can draw up to 300,000 viewers at a time.
He’s backed by a team who help respond to orders, answer questions on Facebook Messenger, monitor payments to his bank account and shout out tag lines off camera for comedic effect.
The formula works so well, Anurak says he made 26 million baht ($829,000) in sales in March alone.
“Facebook and Instagram give people an opportunity. If you do it right with good content, in just seven months you can make millions,” he told Reuters from the seaside village of Satun.
His success is emblematic of booming social media commerce in Thailand where entrepreneurs sell products directly to customers via Facebook, Instagram and messaging apps like Japan’s Line Corp.
Propelled by upgrades to mobile banking apps, sales via social media in Thailand more than doubled to 334.2 billion baht ($10.9 billion) in 2017, according to the latest report from the country’s Electronic Transaction Development Agency.
Moreover, those sales accounted for 44% of e-commerce in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy, jumping from 21% a year earlier. Since then, banks have dropped transfer fees, likely driving the market further.
The popularity of so-called social commerce in Thailand owes much to the relatively late arrival of big e-commerce firms, cultural shopping preferences and the wide use of Facebook and Instagram. Some 38 million people or 57% of the population access Facebook every day, according to the U.S. firm.
Its growth also highlights the global business opportunities for Facebook and its Instagram unit.
“Social commerce is a market to monitor because Facebook has moved more sharply in a commerce direction recently with the launch of many commerce friendly features,” said Alessandro Psicini, co-founder of Crea which advises brands that want to boost their social media sales in Thailand.
Facebook said this month it wanted to expand into payments and launch its own coin. Instagram in March introduced a checkout button which allows users to shop without leaving the app, though that function is currently limited to a small number of brands and U.S. consumers.
Facebook and Instagram declined to comment on how they plan to make the most of social commerce opportunities.
Within Asia, only Indonesia rivals Thailand in social commerce. There it accounts for about 40% of e-commerce but is worth a smaller $3 billion, says consulting firm McKinsey & Company. The market is less developed as many Indonesians do not have bank accounts and due to the challenges of delivering goods across the country’s archipelago.
In other parts of Asia, shopping on big e-commerce platforms like China’s Alibaba, Amazon.com’s Japan unit or Walmart’s Indian unit Flipkart is the norm, although selling via social media is on the rise in some countries.
Livestreaming by merchants has gained in popularity in China while in India, social commerce companies have emerged over the past year. Satish Meena, senior analyst at Forrester Research, says the firm’s preliminary estimates put India’s annual social selling revenue at $100-$150 million.
Completing a sale via social media can be cumbersome.
In Thailand, customers find products on Facebook or Instagram, while chats and payments usually take place on different apps. But for many Thais, the appeal of social media shopping is the direct communication with merchants.
Chonticha Srisawang, 35, who has her own brand of fake eyelashes and over 76,000 followers on her Instagram, prang_bohktoh, says customers became comfortable placing orders after she took the time to answer queries on chat app Line.
“The Thai market is very customer-centric,” said Vilaiporn Taweelappontong, partner at PwC Thailand, adding that Thai shoppers love to browse and share, which favours social media over big online shopping malls.
“Merchants do everything to ensure customers have a good experience. In the U.S and Europe there is more standardisation and there are fewer choices because the emphasis is on the back-end and things moving faster.”
The two biggest online malls in Thailand are now seeeking to win over social media merchants - who industry experts estimate number more than a hundred thousand. Both added livestreaming services last year.
Alibaba’s Lazada, which launched in Thailand in 2012, also started an invitation-only programme in August to bring social media sellers with a broad customer base onto its site. Around 300 merchants have since joined.
Sea Ltd in March raised $1.5 billion, part of which will go towards educating merchants on how to best use its Shopee platform, which debuted in Thailand in 2015.
Some merchants, however, are not convinced.
Patchararak Thanasintrakul, who sells swimwear on Instagram account Swimsaic, is hesitant due to concerns about copycats and potential pressure to discount.
“We’ve been thinking about it. Lazada approached us, but we worry about brand image. Lazada likes to support discounts, but our brand has never done discounts,” she said.
A Lazada spokeswoman said the company does not compel its merchants to discount.
$1 = 30.7800 baht Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Additional reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal in Mumbai, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Cindy Silviana in Jakarta; Editing by Kay Johnson and Edwina Gibbs