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Why supermarkets are making money and your small business isn’t

Zimbabwean businesses, Zimbabwean retailers, Zimbabwean consumers

There are many other problems that we will explore in the following concept developed by me to define what the industry will now term as the “ANSWER”.

Firstly let’s get the formalities out of the way. The reason that the creative industry in Zimbabwe is failing is purely YOUR FAULT! I repeat it is all your fault!!!!

I am convinced of this fact, completely and utterly convinced that the reason why your clients don’t pay you or why work is never finished or why jobs go back and forth and don’t get approved or why you are feeling tired and working late hours is simply your fault! Let me give you some examples.

The dude selling airtime has a number of options ( Econet, Telecel and NetOne). You walk up to the guy and pick the one you want…then you pay the required amount then you walk away with the product.

The freezit dude opens up his container to show an array of freezits, you pick the one you want and you pay the required amount and walk away.

The tuck-shop owner with limited stocks presents what he has to you and you pay the amount for the products you want then you pay.

In the supermarket, you take a basket or trolley and fill it up with the items you want and guess what? As you get to the till you pay the total asked for from that lovely young lady with a name badge written Talent “I am happy to serve you”.

The issue is that you never deliver a job first time around or get paid as efficiently as these other businesses and all because it’s your fault.

Ok. I will stop with the blaming and start talking solution. Sometime last year I embarked on a project in Botswana to start a media company, things went great when clients would pay deposits and we managed to grow the business, but the main issue is that the work was never finished.

Too many changes being requested from client resulted in the deposit being withheld until the job was complete, our business failed to deliver and my project went bust and I lost my team and all my equipment as well as self-esteem etc. I realised it was all my fault – “If only my business operated like a supermarket I would be better off…”

“Supermarket?” I began to explore this idea and hence came up with the answer and have been writing a book about this business model.

Ok, let’s explore briefly the components that make up a supermarket and how aligning your business or operations to this model may save your business as a design studio, agency, freelancer or consultant from going down the drain coz at this rate you are doomed to fail.

Look at the supermarket as a system made of different components the ones we are exploring are the following –

  • Opening and closing times
  • Baskets and trolleys
  • Isles
  • Signage
  • Price tags and product descriptions
  • Products
  • Tills
  • Queues
  • Opening and closing times (establishing your parameters)

Opening and Closing Times

You need first of all to establish what your opening or closing times are. This is very important because it protects some of those projects of your own that are self-financed need to be done. Giving clients this information may save your life.

You see, when a supermarket is closed, it never loses any customers, and neither will you. This also makes your clients disciplined; they plan their activities around your operation schedule. This can save you lots of money coz no more late nights at the office, pizza and take outs etc. Establish this parameter.

Products – (Products)

Every supermarket has a number of brands and products on its shelves with different prices and descriptions and functions. It’s the same with your operation. Your work is not one big blob, it is a combination of a number of products. This is my most controversial statement yet. Listen and listen really good…


Read that over and over till it sinks in and don’t ever forget it. What I mean is that anything you have never done before, a new skill etc must never be done commercially for your client. Separate your work, artistic stuff is research and development.

You don’t see Lux putting stuff they are still developing on the shelves? They may test it on clients but they never make them pay to try.

The same applies with you – Reserve all prototypes and new stuff that you haven’t attempted before for the lab, show it off at festivals or TV interview, but only when you are competent and can do it over and over again should you make the product available for your client.

Why? A prototype is hard to price, it’s hard to time (with regards to deadlines) and its really hard to take criticism when you have put your soul into the work and client doesn’t appreciate it. Trust me! I am always right…lol

Baskets and trolleys (The briefing process)

It’s funny that in a supermarket you are only charged for what you put into your trolley – if you decide to add something else you are kindly asked to go back and pick it up and the price reflects your change.

I am sure you can already see a problem with how you do things right? Make your clients select what they need, you must have a process of documenting what they say they want as well as what they don’t want to pay for…it must be clear or else you will never finish work and hence won’t get paid and then you will fail and it’s all your fault!

Signage (Guide your clients)

No one ever trained me on how to use a supermarket, buy airtime, or a freezit. However, I have found myself and many of my peers say the following:

Clients just don’t know the process involved.
Clients just think it’s easy to do this stuff.
Clients just don’t know.

If you are one of those that say this listen closely…It’s your fault!!! How many have or dedicate time to teaching clients how to work with you by taking them through the process and managing expectations before taking their money and I don’t mean a crash course on the design process.

For example, stage 1 needs the following to help stage 2 to happen at this point stage 3 will require information x to make sure stage 4 happens in 2 weeks etc etc. If your clients aren’t guided you lose control of the process.

Clearly label your processes and let clients know of distinct milestones so that they don’t sit on you. There must be stages and not “…eerrr….come back in 3 weeks and we will deliver”…that just makes your client scared and agitated.

Price tags and product descriptions

Whenever I go into a supermarket I have a budget, whether I am looking for a bargain or just going out to spoil myself, I want to be able to calculate stuff without having to talk to someone. I walk around the supermarket putting stuff into a trolley and calculate the price.

In a creative setup, most of us don’t even have a pricing module because we are busy giving clients prototypes. I have a quick example. In 2008 we did a project called UKOZI, it was a concept car that we developed to show our visual effects capabilities, we did it in our own time and we had no client chasing us up.

After we had finished we realized that if we had done this type of project for the client we would have priced it incorrectly, we didn’t realize that the project would take 1 year to think about, 6 months to plan it, 4 months to prepare the material and 2 weeks to execute it working flat out in 24 hour cycles…

However, because now we have a product we can now put it on the shelf and since we aren’t experimenting we can calculate how long it will take (coz we can now do it faster), and we, therefore, can price it properly.


Payment is a big issue and I will just put some simple point for you to follow, but first, a bit of waffle. When you get to a till there is something you will notice – you get a price and there is no negotiation. You cannot leave unless you pay, and if you can’t afford the amount you have to remove stuff, you have to remove something and go home with less than what you asked for.

If supermarkets operated like half your businesses then the following would be the scenario. You get to the till and negotiate the price of each item with the manager, then they add extra free stuff and you walk out after paying a deposit…sound familiar?

Ok some points to remember, follow them religiously.

1.Get your payment in full before embarking on any work

2.Anyone wanting deposit and balance later falls into the category of someone needing credit and here is the procedure. They must bring

  • Copies of the ID’s of the directors of the company
  • Proof of residence
  • Bank statements 3 months/proof of funds (guarantor letter)

(You think this sounds funny? Try buying something in 2 or three payments – They ask for the same details. It’s to protect themselves from people turning around and claiming the work wasn’t finished etc…Do the same…it’s business)

3. Never get your balance on completion…There should be a time period, or else you compromise your cash flows. Give 7, 14, 21, 28-day payment of balance dates –  It’s your responsibility to deliver by then.

Balance on completion allows your client to delay your balance coz work isn’t finished, and we all know how they can pull that one on you.


How do you prioritise work in your production facility? Easy jobs first hard ones later? Use the supermarket queue as a reference. Make sure you know how many tills you have, that is your capacity. Then queue jobs on a first brief in first served basis.

For example, if your client takes ages to fill his basket with the things he wants it’s not your fault. The client must be made to understand that they will have to queue, the longer they take the longer the queue will be.

I used to get caught up in clients chopping and changing the brief and not changing the deadline, simply because I was walking down the isles with them helping them take stuff off the shelf and putting it back, I made the brief my issue and so I got blamed for missing deadlines.

No one knows what the clients want but the client. Present your options (products) then tell them to pick what they want.

This is just something small to get you started although I have developed these concepts on a more comprehensive model that shows you how to set up all of those systems as well as tools that helped a lot of companies be the successes they are.

Please write back and give feedback but mostly I would like to hear your problems and see just how to “ANSWER” those dilemmas affecting your practice on a daily basis.

So basically, those are just some of the concepts that will be described in the book I am writing. I know it’s been a bit of a long read, but the book thankfully will have lots of pictures to explain some of these key concepts.

It’s not a new thing at all its just a new way of looking at something old…thank you again.

This article is a guest post from Zimbabwean standup comedian and entrepreneur Carl Joshua Ncube. It first appeared on his Facebook page, one of the many places where you can catch him and a glimpse of some of his content.

Quick NetOne, Econet, And Telecel Airtime Recharge

9 thoughts on “Why supermarkets are making money and your small business isn’t

  1. Thanks Carl, i enjoyed reading your article. I really agree especialy on pricing one’s goods. Quite frustrating why i have to call someone first when i find something on say a classified site only to hear the item is no longer in stock. Go ahead stick a price to it you morons ! it’s business

  2. “…we didn’t realize that the project would take 1 year to think about, 6 months to plan it, 4 months to prepare the material and 2 weeks to execute it working flat out in 24 hour cycles…”

    I say this is where Project Management software kicks in. You know what you are going to need and how long it will cost you both in time, money etc before you even start, that way you can a full overview of everything which is to come.

    I have MS Project, but l like to use open source one called ProjectLibre, try it people, it can save you a lot of headaches. I even use it for farming!!

  3. Thanks for explanation for many points.

    I think Supershop Solution is the main Challenge for develop a business under one roof.

    Customers are very smart & they want to save their time.Everybody don’t like burdening about product price.So Owner of supermarket gets extra cash flow.

    Anyway Thanks again for your long writing for us

  4. This is impractical… Period… Unless there was a project factory where I would buy projects, sell them and restock as needed, then this is just plain fantasy.

    With a proven track record, some clients just won’t pay deposits. They are contractually obligated to pay once the product has been delivered, since you have agreements signed. Why sign agreements then? You say to get payment in full before embarking of any work but, have you ever paid for a product in a supermarket first then waited till they have it in stock.

    The products creative industry have are unique in nature and can’t always be broken down into components and “basketed”. There are dependencies in most cases, which MUST be resolved. If I disagree with a client about a web development project, I can’t withold the application (the source of disagreement) but insist on supplying the hosting and SSL certificate (since there’s no disagreement with respect to these). It’s package deal, all or nothing. In a supermarket I take what I want, if I don’t like something I just leave it. Plenty of other supermarkets will have the EXACT same thing I need.

    It’s silly to say DON’T do X, Y or Z. Whilst supermarket’s are designed for mass markets, your clients, on the other hand, are unique. Know Your Client!! and choose your clients wisely. Most problems actually stem from taking any, and every, business that walks in through the door. When driven by greed (or hunger, in Zimbabwe), poor choices are bound to be made. Your clientele provide a reflection of your choices.

    Sadly, clientele also seem to be chosen based on their perceived size/wealth. Which is why we’ve heard many complain that such a big telecoms company [name witheld ;)] took sooooo long to pay soooo little. So, I’ll repeat, Know Your Client. Research, if need be, with those likely to have encountered them before. At a risk generalising my specific experiences, companies with more than 3 management levels do not pay on time, be it because of bureaucracy, proiritisation issues or payment protocols, it is generally true.

    Remember as well that it’s a two way street, clients also get disappointed by the creatives. A scenerio that is way less likely in the supermarket-customer environment, because LUX from Bon-Marche and LUX from Ncube and Sons cleanse equally well. Clientele in the creative world can ONLY tell once FINISHED, if you fulfilled their requirements/needs and thus a different relationship exists.

    1. how is this fantasy when agencies charge a retainer and get their money at the beginning of each month. I ran an advertising agency for almost 8 years getting our money in advance and the same as a comedian and the same as a freelance graphic designer

      1. A retainer by it’s nature is a form of booking, which largely deviates from the “supermarket” model that is being discussed. I’m pretty sure that in those 8 years, you did have clients that wouldn’t pay the retainer for one reason of the other. That’s reality, not fantasy. If you have been using this method successfully for 8 years, why are there recent failures to talk about?

    2. I am merely giving advice on how I do it…not following it is up to you, but calling it fantasy is absolutely incorrect

      1. The article is structured more as an authoritative, “DO THIS and DON’T DO THAT” piece, rather than advice or opinion.

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