Online retailers in Vietnam have every reason to be optimistic

There are echoes of other markets in the country, but conditions on the ground are still different.

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Vietnamese nationals are becoming wealthier, and they are ready to spend that cash.

Here are some numbers: the country has a rapidly growing middle class population set to reach 44 million by 2020 and 95 million by 2030, and a gross domestic product that is projected to reach USD 327 billion by 2022 carrying an annual growth rate of 6.2% from 2016 onward. If you’re a business with a product to sell, that translates to a market ripe for the taking.

Vietnam’s consumer goods market is already huge. The country’s consumer expenditure as a percentage of its GDP in 2016 was 37.5% in 2016, falling behind only the Philippines (42.1%) within Southeast Asia. Strong consumer confidence and rising household income levels drive this spending, giving e-commerce companies the opportunity to duplicate what they or their counterparts have done in neighboring countries like Indonesia and Singapore.

A Nielsen e-commerce report published in 2018 shows that a staggering 98% of internet users in Vietnam made purchases online last year—the result of a high internet penetration rate and the proliferation of affordable smartphones. With an annual average growth of 35%, according to research conducted by Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Vietnam E-commerce Association, the country is one of the fastest growing e-commerce markets in the world. Retail sales from e-commerce generated USD 8 billion in revenue last year, and that amount is expected to reach USD 13 to 15 billion in 2020.

With things moving much faster than expected in this space, here are four trends to keep an eye on in Vietnam’s e-commerce market.

Premium goods fuel transactions

When it comes to high-end products like cosmetics, couture, and personal electronics, 48% of Vietnamese consumers buy them online from local retailers, according to a recent report on changing consumer wealth published by NielsenThat’s a tick higher than the global average of 45%. The same report also revealed that more than a quarter of those surveyed opted to buy premium products from online retailers based overseas. There’s a simple reason behind this: shoppers in Vietnam are concerned about the quality of what they’re buying. They’re willing to spend a little more for the peace of mind that their purchases are up to snuff.

Cash is still king

Even with the ubiquity of smartphones and the mobile internet, Vietnam remains a heavily cash-based society, with almost 99% of the financial transactions conducted in legal tender. This is because there just aren’t enough banks. As of 2018, there are only 3.8 bank branches for every 100,000 people in the country. In fact, 2017 World Bank statistics show that only 31% of Vietnamese have a transaction account. That makes it impossible for many shoppers to have e-wallets.

As such, only one-fourth of the Vietnamese consumers opt for digital payment, while the remaining 75% prefer cash-on-delivery for their transactions.

Nonetheless, the government has a vision for Vietnam to become a cashless economy. Deputy prime minister Vuong Dinh Hue signed a policy decision in 2017 to reduce number of cash transactions to less than 10% of total transactions by 2020. It’s a bold goal, one that the country’s 28 companies that provide digital wallet and electronic payment services are gearing for as well.

Among them, MoMo is the most popular. It recently raised USD 100 million in a Series C round from global private equity Warburg Pincus. MoMo claims to have 10 million users in the country. Other notable digital payment service providers are Moca and ZaloPay.

Foreign investors lead the way

With many verticals in Vietnam still largely underinvested, Vietnam’s e-commerce market is fueled by foreign investors such as Alibaba, Tencent, Temasek Holdings, Dragon Capital, CyberAgent Ventures, and IDG Ventures Vietnam.

At the moment, the country’s top three e-commerce players in Vietnam are Shopee, Tiki, and Lazada VN, according to iPrice’s statistics. Shopee is owned by Singapore’s Sea Group, while Lazada is a subsidiary of China’s Alibaba Group. Even though Tiki is a Vietnamese company, it is backed by foreign investors—the company received USD 54 million in a Series C round from China’s JD.com and South Korea’s STIC Investments.

It’s a rush for young money

Vietnam’s population is young. Its median age is under 31, and almost 40% of the country is under 25 years old. Gen Z will account for approximately a quarter of Vietnam’s workforce by 2025—that’s 15 million potential consumers.

A separate study by Nielsen shows that Gen Zers favor classic brands that also reflect Vietnamese values and culture.  They also tend to like to be a part of social causes, like making sure that the objects they buy are environmentally sustainable. Startups may have to tweak their promotions to cater to this group of consumers.

Here is an example: In Thailand, online fashion retailer Pomelo recently launched a permanent sustainable fashion line to woo Gen Z consumers. It wouldn’t be a surprise if similar businesses in the region follow suit.

Looking ahead, make everything shippable

Overall, the people of Vietnam are some of the world’s most optimistic consumers. This bodes well for retailers of all sorts in the country.

But the country’s infrastructure needs to catch up. While it may be easy for a shopper in Ho Chi Minh City to swipe for a new set of earphones on her phone, that isn’t the case in most of the rest of the country. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has already indicated that narrowing this digital divide is a priority for the government, but the transformation will take years to fulfill.