In a market dominated by fast fashion players, Coolmate — a young Vietnamese clothing brand — offers an antidote to on-trend shopping. The brand has found its niche in offering high-quality essentials for men's wardrobes: out-of-season designs that travel between occasions while allowing the wearer to express himself in a subtle way.
Operating under the D2C (direct-to-consumer) model through its self-developed e-commerce store, Coolmate has been progressing by leaps and bounds towards its goal of sustained growth. Even during the pandemic, the brand’s monthly growth rate has remained stable at 20-30%, with its two operations centers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City shipping orders within the city limits in under 24 hours.
In early January 2020, Coolmate officially announced that it was chosen to receive VC funds from 500 Startups Vietnam.
Impressed with the brand's growth and vision, we reached out to the founding team: Mr. Pham Chi Nhu (CEO), Mr. Nguyen Van Hiep (CTO) and Ms. Nguyen Hoai Xuan Lan (CMO). In their interview with Vietcetera, the company’s executives explained what inspired them to found Coolmate and how the company’s unique business model allows it to thrive in Vietnam’s saturated and competitive fashion market.
What drove you to found Coolmate?
Nhu: I used to work in the audit industry as well as managing a fashion brand’s e-commerce site, and for years I was troubled by the same two questions:"Why does the exact same T-shirt cost more in Vietnam than it does in Singapore?" and "Why can't a country with a good manufacturing base like Vietnam produce high-quality, affordable products that can compete with international brands?"
Then, about two years ago, it dawned on me that the answers were actually quite simple. Higher prices can be explained by the fact that businesses in Vietnam need to bear a lot of hidden expenses such as branding and lease costs, while subpar quality is the result of the challenges that the local textile and apparel industry, especially our factories, are still facing.
And that’s how the vision for Coolmate came to life — it was about building a business that would utilize e-commerce to cut costs by eliminating some of the stages of production and distribution so that Vietnamese consumers could enjoy high-quality apparel at an affordable price.
To build Coolmate from the ground up, I turned to my friends Hiep and Lan for help. Hiep is experienced in technology and programming, while Lan’s background is in online marketing. Working as a team, it took us nearly four months to develop and officially launch Coolmate in March 2019.
Why did you choose men as Coolmate’s target audience?
Based on my experience and market analysis, trendiness isn't usually something men search for when shopping for clothes. Instead, they value ease and comfort, so they end up buying more basic designs than women. And when it comes to stocking up on wardrobe essentials such as shirts, pants, socks and underwear, they prefer to buy in bulk for the sake of convenience. For these reasons, we decided to focus on online distribution targeting Vietnam's male audience exclusively for the next 2-3 years.
With your key product line being daily essentials, how do you elevate your brand?
There are three core elements that we pay special attention to when crafting our products, namely:
- Material — Coolmate works directly with yarn suppliers to gain access to the latest materials around the world and receive direct input from industry experts. Approved materials will then undergo meticulous testing before going into production. Our designs might look simple, but there’s more to them than meets the eye. In fact, Coolmate’s monthly collection features products that incorporate new, cutting-edge materials we had sourced.
- Fit — As finding one's size through online shopping can be frustrating, we have created a synchronized size chart for all of our products to help customers identify their desirable fit. The customer just needs to take the measurements of an item in their closet and match it against the Coolmate size chart. Once they’ve added a Coolmate piece to the shopping basket, items suggested for them will only include those that come in their size.
- Functionality — Comfort and practicality are extremely important for men and we have added extra details to ensure that. For example, the addition of pocket zippers to keep personal items more secure.
What are some of the take-aways from your first year of operating an e-commerce store?
The biggest upside to having your own e-commerce site is that you have full control. Coolmate's website was built from scratch by a dedicated developer team. It allows us to set up features that are unique to Coolmate, such as smart size selection, size suitability analysis and various payment options.
By analyzing user interaction data, we can see inside our customers’ shopping habits and incorporate these insights into developing content that is more visually engaging, relatable and user-friendly.
Setting up a separate sales channel also means that digital customer engagement for us happens on multiple platforms, not exclusively via Facebook and Google ads. To boost our website traffic, for example, we collaborate with social media influencers and KOLs.
Part of our influencer strategy is to send Coolmate Wardrobe gift boxes so that opinion leaders can have a closer look as well as directly experiencing and evaluating our products, from the design to the material. There are currently nearly 200 YouTube videos of influencers interacting with and using products from Coolmate.
There is a downside too, however. Upfront costs, including development expenditures as well as salaries for your programmers and web developers, are something to keep in mind when deciding whether to invest in your own e-commerce website.
How do you enhance customer experience through online interaction?
Consumer satisfaction is vital to our brand, so we developed a comprehensive exchange and return policy allowing customers to experience our products before making the final decision. Customers can exchange and return all products, without giving a reason, within 45 days from the date of purchase.
Products that must be recalled will be collected and categorized by Coolmate. For intimates, such as underwear and socks, Coolmate will ask customers to permanently mark the item as ‘used’ before collection, to ensure transparency. On the other hand, products that are reusable will be donated to charity.
Fortunately, because we focus on the familiar daywear, our return rate is less than 0.5%. Furthermore, 35% of Coolmate's monthly orders are made by returning customers.
In your opinion, how has the pandemic reshaped the market?
Vietnam’s already robust e-commerce industry received a further boost during the social distancing period. Thanks to our online platform, Coolmate was able to maintain regular operation and a stable growth rate of 15-20% throughout the pandemic.
However, in general the Vietnamese textile industry is still suffering from the pandemic effect and exports remain stagnant. We are trying to increase the volume of orders to create more employment opportunities for workers. To meet this goal, we strive to improve our services and attract more customers.
What advice would you give to those of you who want to pursue a career in fashion in Vietnam?
The future of e-commerce in Vietnam certainly looks bright, but the challenge of establishing and sustaining relationships with your customers remains constant. Business leaders need to equip themselves with a professional mindset to produce high-quality products that can be adapted quickly to meet consumers’ ever-changing tastes.
As for those aspiring to work in the fashion and textile industry, try taking a trip down the supply chain. It's not just about visiting the factory to place wholesale orders. You should communicate with every single individual in the production process to get an accurate view of each stage of the production, so that you can perfect it down to the smallest detail.
I would also encourage local brands to build their own retail platforms. That way, you are not just selling a commodity, but providing an original shopping experience.