Life is much easier now than it was a few decades ago. You can thank the Internet for that. Since it first set roots in Thailand in 1987, society here has changed, to say the least. Now nearly everyone enjoys getting lost in the web, whether logging on to play Candy Crush, read the latest celebrity gossip, or search for a new career—especially on a smartphone or tablet. E-commerce is the new black, though. Brick-and-mortar boundaries have been broken in recent years. Locals have said farewell to physical traffic. Instead, they’re surfing the web for new clothes, gadgets, and even groceries, and in truly remarkable ways. Shopping in Thailand has never been so impersonal, yet so direct and simple.
Fashion brands, as well as the most prestigious shopping malls, have long ago provided customers with user-friendly websites serving as catalogues to preview items. Outlets like Central Department Store also tend to offer special rates for online purchases on top of free shipping nationwide. Online e-commerce meccas Lazada, Zalora, and Reebonz have such a wealth of items in stock that it’s easier to find the right product there than in a store. And certain apps include functions that allow users to compare items—price, size, colour—before finalizing a purchase. Some offer return policies, too.
Okay, so this is a fairly standard setup across the world. Right? Go to a website, point and click, home delivery. Simple. Where online shopping in Thailand takes a turn for the unusual is with social media.
Independent boutiques have always been huge here. Take Chatuchak, Talad Rod Fai, or even Terminal 21as an example. But for all the success that these small shops have found in physical locations, the Internet has given the greatest boost to the market, encouraging more and more young designers to start their own businesses. That’s because they can promote their goods for sale on Facebook and Instagram. Customers can painlessly preview in-store items from e-catalogues. Some shops offer pre-orders on products from other countries, allowing online customers to place their orders by contacting the shop by e-mail, as well as direct messages on Facebook messenger or the LINE chat application.
Forget Paypal or credit cards (which a small portion of the Thai population actually uses). This impersonal style of shopping is based on bank transfers via ATM or e-banking apps, and even casual handoffs—sometimes the seller to will meet you at a BTS station or a café to seal the deal, cash in hand, product in hand. Before making a bank transfer, make sure the shop is reliable. The easiest way to do that is to check the number of followers it has on Facebook and Instagram. If it’s over ten thousand, you’re probably good to go. Still not persuaded? Read comments below the photo of a particular product—people are quite honest online—or try the famous Pantip.com, the most popular fact-checking platform for Thai nationals. Ask a Thai friend for help if you can’t read the language, because almost all the posts are in Thai, although you’ll most likely get a reply in English if you post a question in English.
With low start-up costs and little barrier to entry, many Thais earn extra income from selling products online. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student or have a day job, because you can run your business in the palm of your hand with a smartphone. The owner of Neramit, Rasita, or “Faze,” started her online boutique when she was a freshman in university. It still supplies her with extra cash each month, even though she spends her days as a full-time marketer for a major multi-brand company.
“I sell clothes and accessories, but I don’t think I need a brick-and-mortar store,” she says. “It was more difficult for Neramit to survive when I first started working full-time. New apps let me approach customers and contact them remotely while I’m working on a new collection at home after work.”
Something Simple, a minimal yet stylish brand of handmade bags, has earned international recognition thanks to the brand’s persistent self-promotion of its eco-friendly products on Facebook and Instagram. “I always give away bags to potential influencers. I’m not talking about celebrities, either. I start with people like my sisters and friends who have a large number of followers who could be considered potential customers,” says Lalita, or “Tong,” the founder of Something Simple whose business has grown to such great heights that she has beefed up her website to support orders made from outside Thailand.
Not only fashion is sold online. Travel deals, restaurant promotions, organic food and drinks, home-baked goods, handmade crafts, second-hand vehicles—you name it. You could probably purchase the proverbial kitchen sink, too. Finding the kind of item you’re interested in is not difficult, although Thai is essential for maximum effect. Type what you’re looking for in Google, plus words such as sang sue (order). Then try words like “pre-order.” Instagram and Facebook users can search hash tags (#), like #koreanmakeup or #50percentofffashion. The price is often listed on the post. From there, send a message inquiring about the product. Online shopping in Thailand is remarkably laid-back and easy. Most vendors respond within minutes, if not an hour or two, and payment is negotiated from there.
To build the ever-important passionate fanbase, Instagram shops drop messages and emoticons hinting about what will soon be in stock. Sometimes, celebrities tag the shops in posts, wearing their jewellery, clothing, or make-up. Since Thai celebs are like demigods, with millions of loyal followers, this kind of tie-in advertising goes viral fast and can mean big business to a small brand.
Today, connections are built across far-flung borders once thought impossible to bridge. And it’s all thanks to the Internet. Once again, “Amazing Thailand” not only applies to hidden tourist attractions.