Expats are taking advantage of new online supermarkets, like Suma.vn and Delishop.vn, for groceries and convenience. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Fred Wissink.

It was only a few months ago that some happy expats were able to add Vegemite to their carts on Suma.vn, one of Saigon’s few online supermarkets. The notoriously malty Australian spread was available on the site within 24 hours after someone requested it.

Such convenience is the hallmark of Suma.vn, which soft-launched last November, and other online supermarkets, like Delishop.vn, which launched last December. Despite groceries being a low margin business with heavy logistics and perishable goods, both are embracing the challenge of being online and selling groceries.

“There aren’t that many supermarkets here, so right now we can create that habit of people shopping online,” says Swedish expat Anders Palm, 29, the e-commerce manager at Vietnam Communications Corporation (VC Corp), which operates Suma.vn. “I mean, I hate going to supermarkets in Ho Chi Minh City. They are never nearby and are inconvenient for me. And I know a lot of people feel the same.”

Palm created Suma.vn with Uyen Vu, 31, the site’s operations manager, after they co-founded and developed Eat.vn, one of the first online restaurant food ordering websites in the area. It was acquired by VC Corp, which later put Palm and Nguyen in charge of developing Suma.vn.

Suma.vn stocks a variety of nostalgic items that some expats tend to covet, like Ruffles brand chips or Fruit Loops cereal. Its home page displays a selection of popular items, such as 24-can bundles of Coke (VND 202,000) and Tiger beer (VND 328,000). Less glamorous products on the site are standard groceries, like water, detergent or toilet paper.

“Our idea with Suma was just to have a much better selection than a convenience store, but still be way more convenient than a supermarket,” Palm says.

Delishop.vn takes a different approach. At its helm is French expat Pierre-Andre Quentin, 31, a former supply chain director for Big C supermarket. There, he witnessed distributors gravitating towards suppliers with the cheapest prices, influencing suppliers to forsake quality in favour of better margins on their products.

“My shop is an answer to that,” he says. “It focuses on quality rather than low price. On my website, you won’t find big promotions or low cost things. What you can find on Delishop is the best of what you can find in Vietnam — coffee, rice, jam and more. If you know what I know, you don’t go to supermarkets anymore. But then where do you go?”

Quentin visited producers throughout Vietnam to find quality products for Delishop.vn. So far, the site stocks 315 traceable products organised by brand, like Le Fruit juice made in Can Tho. “It takes time to find these guys,” he says. “You don’t find them in Big C or Co-Op Mart.”

With their contrasting strategies, Suma.vn, an all-encompassing stocklist of imported products that operates under a mainstream corporation, and Delishop.vn, a fine grocery store of local goods that runs as a niche business, are pioneering the local landscape for online groceries.

“Sooner or later, there are going to be more supermarkets, so it’s good for us to step in before it happens,” Palm says.

This window of opportunity requires them to execute their strategies carefully. Suma.vn delves into social media with groups and ads on Facebook. Delishop.vn participates in free markets, where customers can sample its products for free. However, Palm and Quentin both mentioned that funding for marketing is scarce.

Even so, they’ve had auspicious beginnings. For one, the e-commerce industry here is booming. Ordering online is no longer abnormal. Daily deal websites, like Hotdeal.vn or Kay.vn, push the idea of buying online into the minds of Vietnamese consumers. Among expats, restaurant food order websites, like Palm and Vu’s Eat.vn, see high online traffic as well.

Suma.vn and Delishop.vn benefit greatly as small start-ups with manageable selections of goods. The teams are free to experiment or sort out their own hassles as they come. An article on the technology news website Tech in Asia last year explained that local big supermarkets have attempted to build their own online grocery systems, but their interfaces and logistics aren’t as easily adaptable.

Part of the challenge might have revolved around implementing an organised delivery system, which is now becoming easier. “There are third party companies now opening up doing deliveries for e-commerce websites, which would not have been possible five years ago, because there was not enough stuff to deliver,” Palm says.

Delishop.vn utilises one of these subcontractors. It delivers from the site’s warehouse in District 4 with free delivery for orders over VND 500,000. Suma.vn uses its own delivery fleet (the same one used for Eat.vn) with free delivery for orders over VND 1 million.

Shoppers at Delishop.vn receive their orders after two days of processing. At Suma.vn, orders require two hours for processing and can be scheduled or delivered the same day. That’s necessary, since it stocks fresh products like meat and fruit, which Delishop.vn will also offer soon.

“In the past, people were more willing to wait a few days to get their things, which is not true anymore in e-commerce,” Palm says. “The time has come for delivering fresh products.”