During the recent period of social distancing, and now a city-wide lockdown, many of us have turned to online shopping to compensate for our inability to leave the house. CHUS, an online shopping platform for eco-friendly products and authentic handicrafts, was established during the pandemic as an attempt to bridge the gap between consumers and Vietnamese artisans - be it food products, to art pieces, and even board games.
In our conversation with its founder, Injoon Song, we learned more about the platform’s main goal, the current situation of the local handicraft sector, and why he believes foreign tourists’ fondness of fake luxury products is giving off a wrong impression of Vietnam.
In a year when the business world was challenged by the global pandemic, what led you to establish CHUS?
I was very fortunate to have been able to move to Ho Chi Minh city with my family before the onset of COVID-19. Ever since living here, I have had the opportunity to immerse myself in the local culture be it through meeting with clients or through my travels.
I have always been amazed by the quality of local treats: from eco-friendly bamboo products from the Mekong Delta to unique brocade designs from the North. I consider myself extremely privileged to have had access to such products, so CHUS was really born out of my desire to share these experiences with other people.
The idea for CHUS first came to me in 2019 during a trip in Buon Ma Thuot where I had first tasted Ly Son garlic. I had hoped that I could create an ecommerce platform where foreigners and young locals can have centralised access to these products.
What potential does handicraft production in Vietnam have? And what are some of its challenges?
Before the pandemic set in, when my friends visited Vietnam and asked me what they should buy for souvenirs my answer was always the same: “don’t buy anything.” This is because, if otherwise, I knew that they would end up buying fake Prada t-shirts at Ben Thanh market. Sure, it’s fun, but I feel like it gives off the wrong impression of Vietnamese products as lower quality and therefore inexpensive.
I knew that there is another side to Vietnamese products—hidden treasures as we like to call them—one that you’ll find to be extremely quality driven the more that you look into this market. Vietnam’s artisanal and handicraft products have enormous growth potential, especially with tourists, so as a platform, CHUS will be able to bring consumers closer to these products.
In terms of challenges, I think that they’re everywhere. For example, many of the artisanal brands that we collaborate with have little experience in ecommerce beyond what they have done on social media or in pop up shops.
Another challenge is in packaging, we want the customers to be happy the moment they receive their goods. With so many deliveries being carried out throughout Saigon during the social distancing period, this issue needs to be addressed more than ever before. All the packages that I have received are carelessly wrapped and randomly taped together, CHUS wants to address this problem one package at a time - making sure that the customers feel cared for by the brands they are interacting with.
What makes the handicraft production in Vietnam special compared to other industries?
I think people are attracted to Vietnam and their handicraft products for many reasons, it somehow manages to be both traditional and multicultural at the same time. These artisanal products come from the dynamic and long history of Vietnam. But the main problem lies in that most of these artisans’ workshops lie in small alleys within small towns. That’s where CHUS steps in, we go out to find these ‘hidden treasures’ and plan to bridge their access to our customers.
CHUS focuses on eco-friendly products. Was finding sustainably run brands difficult?
When we were first ‘hunting’, we were pleased to see that many brands were paying a lot of attention to local products. A wave of new brands have placed a stronger emphasis on health conscious and eco-friendly products. For example, on CHUS we carry brands that offer plastic alternative straws, dishwashing fluid from fruit enzymes, or rattan bags and baskets.
I also see this younger generation, mainly GenZ, who have studied outside of Vietnam and returned to innovate with their own brands and products. They are noticeably more quality-driven with more streamlined designs, ranging from board games to fashion. We are very surprised and pleased to see so much diversity within the handicraft industry, so for them to have more exposure on CHUS, we also hope that our customers will feel the same way.
How do you define your target customers?
We have two main audience groups that we look to primarily serve, the first is expats and young locals who are living in Vietnam. We want to give them opportunities to discover young artists and local brands that they haven’t known before, brands that they may not have encountered previously.
Our second audience is all of our global friends who visit, or are currently missing Vietnam. For them, we have specific marketing plans when the COVID-19 situation gets better and tourists can visit the country again. We want foreigners to see us as the first destination when they want to find quality, local Vietnamese products.
How do you make Vietnamese handicraft products closer to customers and their homes?
When our brands started out, they weren’t focused on opening a business. They were just pursuing a hobby, making these products to share with their family and friends, for the enjoyment of their local community. For example, a producer from Hoi An that we now collaborate with initially made granola for his family and neighbours to share. Over time, he ended up making a business out of it, basing his brand in Hanoi and HCMC—happily working together with us.
Similar to the granola producer, many of our brands started off small and extremely local. But through CHUS, we plan to allow them to branch out and expand their products to touch consumers beyond their small communities. So that customers everywhere can really enjoy and be closer to Vietnamese handicraft products.
When finding partners for CHUS, what do you look for?
We have a simple rule in finding new brands to collaborate with: whether we can proudly introduce their products to our families and friends.
When we ‘hunt’ for these hidden treasures, we focus on the customer experience with an emphasis on quality. CHUS wants to focus on bringing brands and customers together: you wouldn’t want to give your family something of inferior quality, similarly, we don’t want that for our customers.
What are some of the values that you want to promote?
The phrase that I commonly use in group meetings is “when in doubt, think from the customer’s perspective.” When I first moved to Vietnam, I found that not many people in the market really consider customer’s perspective in the way they do business, when they really should be placing it as their first priority. So at CHUS, we have decided to place the customer’s happiness at the forefront of all our discussions and decisions. Our next priority is to our collaborating brands, and thirdly our commitment to our employees.
What are your priorities for 2021 and beyond?
We will keep focusing on the basics for the next year. One, finding hidden treasures in this market; and two, developing customer centric product presentation to enhance their shopping experience. The goal for 2022 will be collaborating with 3000 brands to truly establish CHUS as the primary destination for people who are interested in Vietnamese handicraft, in the country and beyond.