e-commerce

Lifeline during COVID-19: How Facebook buy and sell groups meet people’s needs

Victor Barreiro Jr.
Lifeline during COVID-19: How Facebook buy and sell groups meet people’s needs
While big businesses have resources to pivot online, ordinary Filipinos are banking on Facebook groups – popular, easy, effective, and most of all, free

With strict lockdowns and high unemployment during the pandemic, Filipinos were forced to rely on e-commerce activities or online shopping and selling to meet their needs.

Caryn Mangao, 24, quit her job as a customer service representative to take care of her 9-month-old baby during the pandemic. She stayed home and decided to sell baked items in a community Facebook group to make ends meet.

She earns a net income of around P2,000 daily – enough to shoulder her baby’s food, diaper, and even monthly vaccination needs.

“The main reason why I was pushed into online selling was because of my baby. It’s all for him…. This Facebook group is close to my heart,” Mangao told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.

According to research from consultancy Bain & Company and Facebook, the global crisis has accelerated e-commerce and other digital trends across Southeast Asia.

“Some of these trends are here to stay,” Praneeth Yendamuri, a partner with Bain & Company based in Singapore, told CNBC.

“One of the trends we identified was essential online shopping, and that’s here to stay,” he added.

Business data platform Statista meanwhile projected $3.54 billion in revenue in the e-commerce segment in the Philippines.

While big businesses have resources to pivot online, ordinary Filipinos like Mangao are banking on Facebook groups. After all, these are popular, easy, effective, and most of all, free.

The community buy and sell process

Ditas Antenor founded the Facebook group BF HomeSarap in 2019. But it was during the pandemic that it saw tremendous growth.

The initiative has since expanded to 6 other groups: Merville, Makati/BGC, Pasig, Metro East, Antipolo, and Alabang.

The HomeSarap groups, Antenor said, are “Facebook platforms that gather buyers and sellers within specific localities and communities.”

“A lot of them are housewives or small business owners who cook and prepare dishes from their own homes and kitchens. Eventually, some small restaurants joined, and that’s how the groups grew in size,” she added.

These Facebook communities are mostly filled with posts of food for sale. Separate groups were then created to cater to transactions for general merchandise and non-food items.

Posts on the Facebook pages follow a format. Outlined in posts are the seller’s name, the price of the items and the quantity, and the method of payment, as well as any additional fees like delivery charges.

Cashless or contactless systems – via bank transfer, PayMaya, or GCash – are also the preferred mode of payment to minimize risks.

“For example,” Antenor said, “a typical seller will prepare a batch of 12 servings of Kalbichim, a kind of Korean beef stew.”

“A typical scenario will start with them announcing that they will be selling 12 servings of her Kalbichim. They then post a very delectable picture of their dishes, including some important details like methods of payment, meet-ups, contact numbers for easy buyer-seller communication, etc,” she explained. 

Buyers then comment on that post or contact the seller via private message to begin a transaction. They will agree on the quantity of orders, mode of payment, delivery fees, and delivery methods.

A lifeline for sellers

For Mangao, the platform provided her a lifeline to help her care and provide for her child.

Sobrang laking help po kasi, dahil sa pandemic hindi na ako pumapasok and dahil doon no income din. Primary needs like milk and diaper nang baby ko doon na namin kinukuha simula nung nag-online selling ako. Same thing sa monthly vaccination niya,” she explained. 

(It’s a big help because I can’t go to work due to the pandemic and I lost income because of it. Online selling provides for the primary needs of my baby, such as milk and diapers, as well as monthly vaccinations.)

For dentist Janine Sotomil-Guiyab, she decided to pursue a small food business during the lockdown to help save money.

At the time, she said she was still hesitant to open her practice, while her pilot husband flew limited flights.

“During that time, our dental clinic was still gearing up for this pandemic, and at the same time, my husband’s job was greatly affected. He rarely flies at this time. With plenty of time, I decided to put up my small business to earn and save money,” Sotomil told Rappler.

The Facebook e-commerce group setup was very helpful in spreading the word about her products, as she noted how “hundreds of people can immediately see our food products.”

“It’s a huge help when people who are not just our friends but random customers start to recommend us on those pages and share us on social media. That’s how we get more customers.”

Buyer’s boon, for the most part

For online buyers, having items delivered to their home is more convenient and less risky than going for a grocery run.

“The fear alone of contracting the virus is such a downer that I now have second thoughts of going to the grocery store, much more so to a public market, where security and safety measures are compromised,” Ed Malay, who frequently buys online, told Rappler.

“Even in the supermarkets, people have become unmindful of the dangers of the COVID-19 virus, that while entry to supermarkets are regulated people forget about safe distancing once they’re inside,” he added.

Della Sangco, another buyer, said she now “shops for everything online.” Even if the pandemic ends, she said she would continue doing so “mainly because of the convenience.”

All sorts of items and groceries are available on online groups – from fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, and baked goods, to medicines and nutritional supplements.

Challenges: The ecosystem isn’t perfect

But the buying and selling community, while ideal for the pandemic, can only last so long without proper vetting.

While there are perks, online shopping also has inherent risks. The top concern of buyers is the lack of quality control.

Malay said of the disadvantages of buying food online: “While there are exceptional ones, there are those who probably just want to make a living thinking that we don’t have any choice because of the crisis…. I have personally experienced food that was really so bad you feel like you’ve been scammed. But customers have a choice and you just have to put those kinds of sellers in your ‘not to order’ list.”

Malay recommended that there be a gatekeeping mechanism of sorts to ensure item quality before a seller is allowed into a group.

“We want to help online food traders, especially the small business operators, but sometimes it is better to tap on the food provided by the established restaurants even if you have to pay a premium. At least you are assured of the safety and quality of the food,” Malay added.

While ideal, Malay’s suggestion is difficult to implement.

Antenor admits the ecosystem for buying and selling needs some improvement, as they do this service without pay.

“I had to form teams of administrators and moderators per group so I could be helped in regulating the groups and enforcing some of our rules,” Antenor said.

“The nice thing about Facebook communities is the function where anyone can report to administrator or moderators for anything, from unpleasant interactions, transactions that did not push through, miscommunications between sellers and buyers that may lead to said failed transactions, and so on.”

She said administrators and moderators had to remain vigilant so as to keep the communities wholesome.

“We don’t want to incite resentments between buyers and sellers, since one report or comment about a seller can break a business, and we don’t want that to happen. It’s not easy to start and run a business, especially when you’re a home-based entrepreneur to which positive feedback is extremely important,” Antenor said.

“These are some day-to-day issues that we admins and moderators face, but we all enjoy what we’re doing to keep these groups up and running smoothly for everyone to enjoy as well,” she said.

As the public adjusts to the new reality, small e-commerce ventures will keep going, as long as there’s demand for good food, groceries, and a sense of community. – Rappler.com

Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.