The emergence of the online retail business in Nigeria was always going to upset a few established practices. One big question centered on how online retailing would play in the face-off between traditional retail outlets (our not so “supermarkets”, and corner shops) and the discount shopping malls that are increasingly a central feature of our large urban centres. Whereas the discount malls appear to have found a killer application in their huge volumes and lower prices, there is still considerable worry over the prospects for the online retail market here. Ease and convenience of use, along with lower prices from virtualisation of shelf spaces should see them eat into discount retailers’ market share. That is, if they can address some of the infrastructure challenges associated with this.
Can they, however, go head-to-head with the existing (largely foreign-based) online retail competition? Depends, it would seem, on several factors. Off Amazon, for example, one can only buy books to a Nigerian address. A variety of concerns over contract integrity, and original equipment owner restrictions apparently forbid other kinds of transactions. So the foreign online challenge will be restricted to books alone? Even on this narrow base, none of the local online shops is ever likely to rival the depth and breadth of Amazon’s book store. But, beyond this, there is the customer service challenge. A challenge, which an encounter, last week, with Jumia, purportedly Nigeria’s largest online retailer, underscored forcibly.
With Amazon, the standard response to non-receipt of a book purchase is an offer to send a new one (apparently, because the transaction was insured) or to refund fully the cost of purchase. Invariably, because Amazon can trace its despatches up to the Nigerian border before it vanishes, and having them resend any such book is an invitation to activate the very same black hole into which the first order disappeared; I have always opted for a refund. This is paid with impressive alacrity. You leave an online experience feeling that the retailer was set up just for you.
At this point, you wonder why institutions in Nigeria and the relationships that describe them do not work as these do in other climes. At the General Post Office, for example, you scour through huge hard-back registers searching for evidence that an expected despatch from Amazon arrived. In a world in which even knockoff mobile phones have bar code readers, it is a big wonder that our post offices do not have digital records of their mail. Often, it is argued that failures of this type in the delivery of public services are not so much the consequence of incompetence, but that they are tailor-made to avoid the levels of accountability consistent with efficient service delivery.
Service failures in the private sector are, however, less amenable to easy justification. I found this out most painfully last week, when I placed an order with jumia.com.ng. Because it was a big-ticket buy, I made sure I called to confirm the availability of the item I was about to order. I’d done dry runs of their service offerings using the “pay-on-delivery” method. However, I was not about to keep large amounts of money waiting at home for this delivery. So, against my better judgment, I used my debit card to pay.
Then, began the long wait, even though I’d received mail to the effect that “customer service was going to get across to me quickly”. Eventually, I called Jumia’s contact number, only to be told that the item I had paid for was no longer in stock. Bizarrely, the last one was bought just as I clicked the “order” button. It got more preposterous. I was offered a “store voucher” for the full value of my order to enable me buy any other “thing” that I might be interested in. Aghast, I demanded full recompense: either I got what I paid for; or a refund in full for the money I had paid.
Contrasted with the service value proposition of the foreign online retail outfits, this was quintessential “Idumota trader” mentality. Once paid, do everything to frustrate cash from going back into the customer’s pocket. I did all I could to persuade “service people” at Jumia that the Nigeria Uniform Bank Account Number (NUBAN) scheme adopted by banks in the country in August, 2010 included digits that uniquely identified my bank branch. They would have none of that and insisted that I either provide a “source code” (usually valid for cross-border transfers) or send the name, both of my bank and the branch I bank with. The to and fro was as amusing as it was amazing.
I have had Amazon do a number of refunds for orders that were not fulfilled. I never had to do a fraction of what Jumia requested before my account in Nigeria was credited. No “source codes”. No “branch details”. I did get my refund ultimately from Jumia, but the clearest lesson from last week is that against the natural scepticism of our people for transactions of this nature, our fledgling online retailers will need stronger service propositions if they are not to go the way of previous such innovations.