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Retailers must stop feeling threatened by online

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Retailers threatened by online competitors are distracted from the truth that consumers are just consumers and should be treated the same, regardless of where they are shopping, writes SIMON VAN DER MERWE, Head of corporate and trade business at weFix.

Headlines like these appear regularly in the South African business and trade press: “Online shopping blasting holes in traditional retailer profits” and “Retailers acknowledge the threat of online retail on physical stores”.

Statistics tell a different story.

According to World Wide Worx, it was only in 2016 that online retail sales made just a 1 percent dent in overall retail sales. Last year, Effective Measure’s E-Commerce Industry report noted that more than half of respondents had still not purchased anything online.

Then, just-released Statistics SA Retail Trade Sales figures show a 5,3 percent increase year-on-year in December 2017, with an overall increase of 3 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.

In November last year – the month of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, neatly packaged by some as Black Friday weekend – Stats SA recorded the highest retail trade sales figures in the second half of 2017.

The irony is, of course, that these massive sales originated online in the United States and have only recently seeped into local brick-and-mortar stores looking to cash in on the pre-festive-season-shopping extravaganza.

By my estimation, traditional retail is as alive and well as it can be given the ongoing economic and political uncertainty that was South Africa’s reality last year.

Still, this is no reason for brick-and-mortar retailers to be complacent.

After all, a third of Effective Measure’s respondents shop online between once a month and once a week, and another third are shopping online more frequently than they did the previous year.

My advice to brick-and-mortar retailers, the cornerstone of our weFix footprint and therefore a cornerstone of our strategy, is to leverage the many ways that online stores will never be able to compete with ‘real-life shops’.

  • Customer service from real people still has an edge – invest in sufficient staff on the floor, train them properly, and select personnel with engaging personalities.
  • Online stores do not have passing foot traffic – sure, visitors may stumble across the online store while browsing the web (and a site’s design should certainly be as enticing to these users as possible), but this traffic is arguably less focused and of less volume than customers ‘captured’ in a shopping mall or other retail space. Take advantage of this fact by making it easy for customers to visit you. In other words, select your store location and décor very carefully.
  • Bring your brand to life for all five senses – granted, it can cost more to invest in bricks-and-mortar store space and inventory, depending on the sophistication of a competing online store. However, it is so much easier to create a unique, holistic, creative brand and shopping experience in the physical world and this is something that retailers should take advantage of when design their spaces, planning inventory etc.

A final statistic worth reflecting on – again from Effective Measure – is that 30 percent of respondents report that they often browse in-store before making a purchase online. By contrast, 28 percent browse online, then purchase in-store.

I believe this reflects the trend towards online and offline shopping becoming just shopping.

A local brand that is recognising the need to unify channels, rather than separate them, is local ecommerce darling YuppieChef. In October last year the company opened a bricks-and-mortar store in Cape Town’s Willowbridge Mall.

Designed by well-regarded interior design company ARRCC, this is a far fancier retail experience than the space from which one could previously collect orders ordered online.

Our approach has been focusing on partnerships with mobile device brands, insurance companies and other machine manufacturers.  weFix originally worked only with Apple devices, but we have since added Samsung, LG and Huawei to the suite of mobile devices that we repair, as well as Yoco wireless card machines and DJI drones.

No longer are we merely a repair shop – we operate sophisticated technician-staffed labs in Cape Town and Johannesburg, supported by a robust framework to manage large corporate trade volume for the likes of FNB and Energizer.

It will be interesting to see how the imminent 1% VAT increase (South Africa’s first since 1993) and increased luxury goods taxes which we anticipate will affect at least some mobile devices, will affect the retail trade sales figures in the coming months. I suspect that the upward trajectory will continue, even if at a somewhat more modest pace.

Ultimately, I don’t believe that retailers are facing an online vs offline battle at all – we’re battling for consumers, period.

Our challenge is to integrate the best of both worlds into our business models.

Africa News

Smart grids needed for Africa’s utilities

Power utilities across Africa should rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem, says COLIN BEANEY, Global Industry Director for Asset-intensive and Energy and Utilities at IFS.

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Africa’s abundant natural resources and urgent need for power mean that it is one of the most exciting and innovative energy markets in a world that is moving rapidly towards clean, renewable energy sources. The continent’s energy industry is taking new approaches to providing unserved and underserved communities with access to power, with an emphasis on smart technologies and greener energy sources.

Power systems are evolving from centralised, top-down systems as interest in off-grid technology grows among African businesses and consumers. And according to PwC, we will see installed power capacity rise from 2012’s 90GW to 380GW in 2040 in sub-Saharan Africa. Power utilities are needing to rethink their business models and how they manage and monetise their assets to keep pace with the changing energy ecosystem.

Energy and utilities providers are transforming from centralised supply companies to more distributed, bi-directional service providers. They can only achieve this through the evolution of “smart grids” where sensors and smart meters will be able to provide the consumer with a more granular level of detail of power usage. This shift from an energy supplier to “lifestyle provider” will require a much more dynamic and optimised approach to maintenance and field service.

African companies must thus embrace digital transformation as an imperative. This transformation begins by embracing enterprise asset management to improve asset utilisation. The subsequent steps are enhancing upstream and downstream supply chain management; resource optimisation; introducing enterprise operational intelligence; embracing new technologies such as the Internet of Things, machine learning, and predictive maintenance; and becoming a smart utility.

Embracing mobility to drive ROI

Getting it right is about putting in place an enterprise backbone that accommodates asset and project management, multinational languages and currencies, new energies and markets, visualisation of the entire value chain, and mobility apps. Mobile technologies that support the field workforce have a vital role to play in driving better ROI from utilities’ investments in enterprise asset management and enterprise resource planning solutions.

Today’s leading enterprise asset management solutions feature powerful functionality for mobile management of the complete workflow of work orders – from logging status changes and updates, from receiving and creating new orders to concluding the job and reporting time, material and expenses. Such solutions are easy to deploy and intuitive for end users to learn and use.

Importantly for organisations operating in parts of the continent with poor telecoms infrastructure, connectivity is not an issue. The solutions work offline and synchronises when network connectivity is available. Users can work on any device—laptops, tablets, and smartphones—commercial or ruggedised.

By ensuring that field technicians have easy access to information and processes, the mobile solution enables technicians and maintenance engineers to easily do the following tasks:

·         Create a new work order on the fly and log new opportunities

·         Access both historical and planned work information when requested

·         Permit customers to sign when the job is completed

·         Capture measurements and inspection notes on route work orders

·         Create new fault reports on routing

·         Facilitate documentation through photo capturing

·         Provide easy access to technical data and preventive actions.

The power of mobility allows the engineer to be the origin of all data capture on a service event. They can easily inquire on asset history, record parts used or parts needed for repair, record labour hours, and expenses as they occur, and any notes of repairs performed. When coupled with workforce management tools, such solutions unlock significant productivity gains for utilities who are trying to get the most from their workforce and assets.

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Brands fall for app vanity

The experience of a mobile screen full of icons, representing independent apps that your need to open to experience them, is making less sense. Instead, businesses should serve customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the digital platform they already use, says PIETER DE VILLIERS, Group CEO at Clickatell.

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Many brands remain obsessed with creating mobile apps. This not only defies trends that point to increasing consumer app apathy, but can exclude a sizeable portion  of your customers in emerging economies. Companies need to engage with their users where they are rather than forcing them onto an app, in what can only be described as brand vanity. 

In 2017 there were around 2.2 million apps available in the iOS app store and over 3 million on Google Play. And, while the number of apps being downloaded continues to rise, analysis shows that consumers are only using 30 apps per month and accessing just 9 on a day-to-day basis. 

While these numbers still seem attractively high, in reality the majority of the apps we use are for messaging (like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and WeChat) and our social networking, gaming, leisure, dating or utility activities. 

Despite the facts, the application strategy as the holy grail for digital transformation is still being pushed even within large progressive brands. What’s more, some advertising agencies and digital consultants are still pushing apps as the best means for companies to connect with their customers. This has resulted in some organisations stubbornly doubling down on app strategies which are simply not showing return on investment (ROI). 

It’s not immediately clear to us whether the fascination with apps is a roll-over from long overdue projects or whether brand owners equate a mobile-first strategy with a mobile app. Mobile-first in 2018 means customer first, and therefore embracing chat commerce in order to deliver services with convenience and simplicity in mind. 

Why apps won’t win the internet

The problem with apps goes beyond user fatigue. In the first instance, many apps are poorly designed, assuming technical sophistication which may not match reality for the average customer. Poor user interfaces and attempts to provide complex engagement can result in even the best ideas missing their targets due to lack of engagement. 

Secondly, we all know that economic realities drive consumer behaviour. In Africa, new mobile phone users typically opt for feature phones over smartphones. With a longer battery life and a much more accessible price point, feature phones still allow for a basic internet connection, chat platforms like WhatsApp, and call and message functionality. In these regions, the cost of an app – even if it’s free – goes far beyond installing it. Constant updates require reliable and cheap access to the internet. For the average phone owner in an emerging market, this can be a serious challenge. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, apps must be relevant to their intended market. Frequency of usage is a key measure of relevance. 

Apps which are used on a daily basis, like health and fitness trackers, enjoy constant engagement. New features which are added are eagerly awaited by users who are happy to update their apps. 

However, users may well question the relevance of the app if they are required to conduct updates on a monthly or even weekly basis when they are only making use of the app once or twice a year. 

On average, I download one app per quarter. Some I use more frequently than others, but all of these apps need to be regularly updated to maintain security, update features, and fix bugs. Many apps are pushing out updates much more frequently. I noticed over the past year that I could go from having all apps updated, to 32 apps requiring an update in five days.

When it comes to a customer-first digital strategy, companies should be asking themselves if an app is really the best way to reach their target audience. 

In fact, at the end of 2016, Gartner predicted that by 2019, 20 percent of brands would ditch their mobile app. What’s more, in its 2018 predictions, the company forecast that by 2021, more than 50 percent of corporations would spend more per annum on bots and chatbots than on mobile app development. 

So, we need to ask, what is the alternative for CIOs, CDOs, CMOs, and digital leaders who are looking for ways to reach, retain and grow their customer base? 

The logical app alternative 

The old battle advice goes: fight your enemy where they are not. Military strategists agreed that having your enemy come to you and fight you on your own terms was preferable. In a world where customers have access to thousands of offerings and millions of deals online, we need to flip that idea to Meet Your Customers Where They Are. 

Any marketeer will tell you just a how difficult it is to drive app downloads. Development, cross platform testing and user interface aside, the marketing campaign required to get customers to download the app can swallow entire annual budgets and still come up short. 

Looking at the facts, it makes infinitely more sense to work within the digital platforms already being used by your target audience. 

Clickatell is already enabling chat commerce for some of the leading global brands with its Touch solution. This allows organisations to serve their customers with an ‘app-like’ experience inside the chat or browser platform of their customer’s choice (Twitter, Facebook Messenger, etc.) 

Brands can now send an actionable Touch link such as ‘find the nearest ATM’ or ‘reset my password’ within a chat stream that will open an intuitive touch card without the user having to download an app to perform the action. Services can also be linked to the in-app experience for brands not looking to abandon their app efforts. 

Working with our clients, many of whom are global innovators and thought leaders, we’ve found that having the courage to design with an ‘end user first’ approach and dealing with the back-end complexity behind the scenes results in cost efficient customer delight and ROI. 

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