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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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