This weekend we (my friends and I) decided to have a little get together and watch all the airing football matches together, something that we do every other weekend.
As is also always the case we found ourselves debating over every topic under the sun during the breaks but this time online shopping (specifically why it has not caught on in Zimbabwe) was one of the topics we explored.
A lot of nuggets were unearthed during these escapades and I have decided to share them with you. Please bear in mind some of these strongly worded arguments are not mine, they are just my friends’ crude attempts at candour.
For a long time those in the tech sector have peddled various reasons why e-commerce ,specifically online shopping, has not yet caught on in Zimbabwe. For a long time all the failures of online entrepreneurs were blamed on inadequate payment solutions.
To some people all our woes could be placed squarely on PayPal’s door. The consensus among my friends was that this was rather simplistic and the fact that the arrival of PayPal, the Ecocash MasterCard and the development of Paynow as well as other payment solutions has not resulted in any immediate breakthrough seems to justify this conclusion.
- No culture of online buying- Most Zimbabweans ,it would seem, prefer making their purchases in store because it is the way they have done it for years. People prefer to choose the products and services, feeling them out, taking clothes into change rooms and such. A lot of people for example do not even know what size clothes they wear, they just go into a shop and buy whatever fits. Even when people where making mail orders in developed countries they were still unpopular in this country. Online retailers need to overcome this reluctance shown by people which is no easy task. Few people order their pizza by phone, they have always bought their pizza in store and that is not about to change because PayPal came to Zimbabwe.
- There are no clear advantages to buying online-Right now buying products online in this country is nothing but a mere novelty with no apparent virtues. Why should I buy a pizza online instead of going to the store? Most available online stores have a more limited selection of goods and some even charge a premium when compared to their brick and mortar counterparts.
- Courier problem- Local couriers like to charge a premium and most do not deliver to remote areas-the very places that would benefit from online shopping. For example couriers like DHL, FedEx and UPS do not deliver to most growth points and rural areas and require you to visit one of their urban depots to collect your packages. Why order online when you will have to go to the nearest town to receive the goods anyway? It would help if couriers had an overnight or same-day delivery option that was affordable.
- Most people don’t understand online buying at all- Even when it’s virtues are apparent, most people still don’t get online buying at all. What is it all about? Those involved in the sector must embark on an evangelising exercise extolling its virtues in much the same way pentecostal churches go about their business.
- Coordinated frontal efforts are absent- Zimbabwe is a very small country and all the online selling efforts have been fragmented. There is no Zimbabwean Amazon/e-Bay instead there are a dozen unpopular, some downright ugly sites, some are cheap imitations of their international counterparts lacking most of their functionality, some are broken. Most are geek projects with very little merchandise on them and run by people with little business experience. You would not believe how many sold houses are still listed on some selling websites-some posts were made years ago and there is not monitoring process to weed out sold listings. The big guys like OK, TM and Meikles are not bothered by online selling. It would be very different if say Econet were to make an online Amazon, they have the financial leverage and business acumen to make it work.
- Adolescent payment systems- while we now have payment systems at our disposal most are still in their infancy and are either still in development or the public do not yet understand them well. vPayments for instance would do well to add more banks to their portfolio, EcoCash’s MasterCard solution is just likely to lead to USSD fatigue – Why don’t they just develop an app? EcoCash would also do well with an official API that would ease integration with online stores allowing customers to click and pay instead of going through hurdle after hurdle of USSD codes-it’s so frustrating when the process fails 5 steps down the way.
- Expensive payment systems-compared with going to the bank and making a singular withdrawal most of the payment systems in this country are expensive. For a typical withdrawal you will be charged $3.50 maximum. Swiping your card will incur POS charges per swipe. My bank charges $2 for each swiping transaction. The same fee is levied for online transactions. If you use an EcoCash card you will have to generate a new one every 14 days for a fee.
- Liquidity crunch- people are in a vice they would rather do their purchases the old fashioned way rather than try something new and take on unknown risks of buying online.
- Most local goods are not suitable for online selling-one of the arguments advanced was that since local factories have fallen silent most of the goods sold online are imported goods which we have seen are sold at a premium. It would be cheaper to purchase the items directly from China rather than buy from a local dealer who is selling them at a premium. I mean as long as we are buying online why not just skip the middleman? In our agro-based economy no one is going to buy their tomatoes online.
If some of these problems are to be overcome those of us believers have to “go ye forth and preach the gospel to the unbelievers.” Just like the rugged band of believers in Christ’s time when they received the so-called Great Commission we have to go out and show people the benefits and virtues of e-commerce and online selling.
Perhaps it will become just as popular and come here and be done here as it is in developed countries.