One advantage of shopping on-line is the sheer convenience of it all. It used to be something one did from a straight-backed chair across from a personal computer. And that on its own was sufficient to challenge so many shopping paradigms. Shopping trolley? Gone. Rough-hewn personnel at the checkout counter? Gone too. Even the conflicting odour from so many shoppers frenetically going about their businesses in one place is yesterday’s tale. E-commerce has also grown on the back of retailers’ convenience. No need any more to stack counters, and keep them supplied. And with systems linked to suppliers’ networks, order fulfillment is a song. Off-the-shelf algorithms even allow retailers to suggest purchases to their customers based on the latter’s previous shopping patterns, and to anticipate shifts in demand across entire sectors.
Significant though these have been, the industry’s patterns continue shifting. Whereas once a PC was easily described, today, online patrons shop off their mobile phones, their “smart” televisions, their tablets (these, like the mobile phones, are again rapidly mutating, and may be unrecognisable from the current infrastructure five years down the line) – in short, from just about any gizmo that can be connected to the Internet. Fortunately, in Nigeria, our snail-links to the Internet do not represent much of a let to e-shopping. Until recently, the absence of local shopping portals was the biggest bother. Amazon was (and still is accessible) – but from Nigeria, you can only get books off that portal. Some policy or the other prevents Amazon despatching just about everything else to a Nigerian address. And for the foolhardy, or those who find Amazon’s “express delivery” too much of an additional cost for each book they buy, the Royal Mail’s delivery through NIPOST is as close to a nightmare as one can get.
Thankfully, Amazon does refund or replace purchases whose dispatch goes awry. But then, one is constrained to go cap in hand each time an order is not fulfilled. Once, one of the “sellers” on Amazon suggested that I seek a local source for my supplies if the local postal service could not be trusted to deliver. The next best we got to a “local” supplier that offered an online shopping experience close enough to Amazon to work occasionally as substitute, was Kalahari.com.ng. South Africa’s biggest online store once tried to supply the Nigerian market. You could follow your order from once you place it until the courier got you to sign for it. Yes, a courier. They were smart enough not to fulfill their orders through NIPOST.
I suppose, in the end, they were too smart. Kalahari.com.ng entered the online market in Nigeria just when potential customers were getting to know their payment cards, and long before we became comfortable using them for “card not present” transactions. With low patronage, and the cost of fulfilling orders high, they eventually packed in their Nigerian operations. These experiences were major concerns when the first “local” online portal opened. How were they going to get orders from their stores to their clients? And what were their plans for getting round a (natural, giving our experiences, thus far) aversion to using cards to make payments online?
It did not help that as with everything Nigerian, there were other “local” concerns. No sooner was the first online shopping portal founded, than there was a mad dash for the online customer. Thus, today, there is an alphabet soup of online shopping malls serving Nigerians in Nigeria. As usual, the danger is of the “peanut butter effect”. Critical competences are spread too thinly across the sector to be of great effect anywhere. Now, one cannot be certain whether this is the reason why their virtual shelves currently promise much more than they deliver. Or whether we are only seeing a start-up effect. Whatever the answers to these questions, one fact of the operations of our local online retailers is undeniable: the inclusion of the “pay on delivery” option is a master stroke. It easily sidesteps whatever inhibitions customers might have releasing their card details online.
However, since a well-spoken young man delivered my test purchase (a low risk, small value affair), I have not stopped wondering how strong this model’s value proposition is. High distribution costs could push domestic online retailers’ prices up in an economy comprising very poor shoppers. This would also happen just as the experimental nature of early adopters’ purchases may not support the volumes required to lend them a competitive edge. As with the foray a couple of years back into high-end media services, we run the danger here of ruining a perfectly good thing.