Companies news

HongKongEcho: Behind the virtual vision of OnTheList’s Delphine Dultzin

A piece of advice stands out in Delphine Dultzin’s mind: “Don’t bother with e-commerce in Hong Kong.” 

Advisors and potential investors were unanimous in their assessment of what they saw as wasted time for Delphine and Diego Dultzin when they launched their flash retail concept, OnTheList, in 2016. Consumers in Hong Kong need a physical store, and online sales are not worth the hassle. 

Initially, it seemed to be sound advice. The duo opened a showroom on Duddell Street in the middle of downtown Hong Kong – and thrived – launching regular sales of recognised brand names at cut-rate prices. The equestrian-loving French native is typically understated in her appraisal of their success when we meet at their office just a few minutes’ walk from the showroom itself.  

As a concept, it’s simple enough. OnTheList takes care of selling a brand’s unwanted or out-of-season stock, taking a cut of sales in the process. The 30-year-old’s team has grown to 60 staff in Hong Kong, while operations in Singapore, Shanghai, Taiwan, Australia, and Korea have all been launched against the backdrop of a highly disrupted retail world – their global team today totals 150 people. 

 

 

Going virtual 

 

While robust digital marketing had always been at the heart of the model, the couple still held onto ambitions for a true online store. In 2017, they decided to test the water, putting together a basic Shopify website to shift a few hundred cases of a friend’s champagne brand.  

Three thousand bottles were sold in the space of a week. “That’s when we started to think an online operation could work after all,” says Delphine. 

Some brands remained hesitant, with the perception that online sales equated to a weakened brand image. Much of this was turned on its head during the city-wide disruption that marked 2019. When the global pandemic followed, brands realised they needed an online presence to survive. 

“We already had good traction before the pandemic, but now the situation is totally different. Even premium luxury brands, who have been the most hesitant, are suddenly open to online-only sales,” she says. 

Today, two thirds of OnTheList’s Hong Kong business come through the online store. “Traffic in the physical showroom has diminished,” she explains, although there are no immediate plans to scrap the location. 

Compare that to Shanghai, where it launched in 2019, and where a physical showroom is the primary touchpoint for customers. “The online market in mainland China is hyper-competitive. Instead, we’re positioned as a more niche luxury offering that is 90% offline.” 

 

Food for thought 

 

Delphine says the team has done well to ride out this immense virtual wave, but there’s more to it than simply shifting operations online. A constant stream of weekly events has been vital for generating traffic, while a push to cut delivery times has helped to enhance customer experience for a clientele that increasingly demands a responsive service. 

As for sustainability concerns, another hot topic, it’s more of a mixed bag. “I would split our customers into two distinct groups: there are those who shop with us because they know they can make a difference and buy a product which would have otherwise been destined to end up in landfill. Then there are those who simply want a good deal and who don’t necessarily understand that we’re really at the final touchpoint in the lifecycle of a product.” 

Still, she’s confident the trend towards more responsible consumption is relevant to Hong Kong’s bargain-savvy market. Four months ago, the couple doubled down on their conviction, embarking on a project to tackle food waste: Phenix by OnTheList.  

The platform, which is already an established force in France, connects consumers with restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, and more, creating a channel to buy cut-price perishable goods that would otherwise be thrown away. In Hong Kong, Delphine and her team have onboarded 50 partners including the likes of City Super, Classified, and Pret à Manger. Around 2,000 users are already active on the platform. 

The passing of a law against food waste in mainland China in April further illustrates the need for new solutions, both for the public and industry operators, she says. “From our regular flash sales, we saw that our customers were very open to this kind of idea. Now it’s a question of building awareness and educating the public.”