E-commerce: The difference between life and death for retailers?

e-commerce retailers
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South African retailers were in trouble even before we were hit by the game-changing COVID-19. Fast forward a few short months and the reality is that consumers may not be flooding malls the way they used to for a very long time to come. Building or adding an e-commerce platform is one of the ways brick and mortar businesses can avoid the fate of traditional US retailers like Toys ‘R Us and Sears that are now filing for bankruptcy.

It has been a tough road. Not only did we enter a recession in the last half of 2019, but Statistics SA data shows that the last time quarterly retail sales grew more than 3 per cent was in the first three months of 2018. Part of the problem is that consumers just have less to spend, but it is also a sign that they are spending money elsewhere. However, what the last few months have done, is expose our reliance on customers walking through our doors.

Lately the online world has been abuzz with discussion on how businesses can pivot their offering in a way that gives them a new “in” in a market that has been disrupted in a bad way. It has been the subject of Adweek Webinars, Zoom calls and Masterclasses and the questions are similar. “How do you take your business online?” and, “How do you take it online fast.”


Here is the rub: everyone is trying to do the same thing and at a time where we are spending half our days managing the personal fallout of COVID-19, adding new products or services or even pivoting a current business stream can be extremely stressful.

Here are a few tips from the experts to guide you in what to consider to make sure you launch an e-commerce platform that makes profits, while other retailers are still waiting for walk-ins:

Choose a strategic partner

The first step is to partner with a reputable digital, SEO and e-commerce specialist who knows how to monitor and maximise your return on investment. A strategic partner will review how your brand story is told across your holistic online presence, while you focus on your core operations. They will guide you through the process, which cuts out the guesswork and leaves you to do what you are best at – maintaining client relationships. 

When going online, every click and action counts: from the customer interface to the speed of processing, product ability, personal touches, the payment gateway, security and of course the way you provide customers with the highest quality service that will have them clicking back for more. 

Cost is often a barrier when it comes to clients deciding whether to go online, but in this climate, it should be seen as an essential investment and not an expense. 

Amalgamate, don’t segregate

In the past, businesses have tried to run their online business as a slap-on or an after-thought to their physical business. This means extra time and cost when they want to scale up and have to fix their initial half-hearted attempts down the line. 

Customers also know when you are just trying to tick the online boxes as opposed to creating an online experience they will remember. This is particularly true when their experience online is different from their experience in-store. You can’t have a streamlined fuss-free exchange policy in-store, but make it impossible for online customers to return items.

Wow them!

A 2019 Accenture study found that the share of digitally savvy and digitally experimental South Africans grew from 53 per cent of the population in 2015 to 70 per cent in 2018. Globalisation has also meant that we’re increasingly comparing our online experiences with those in first-world countries and expecting companies we deal with, to be relevant.  

Retailers have to compete on more than the traditional criteria of convenience, quality and price. They must understand their customers’ preferences, anticipate their needs and provide an excellent experience as a standard. Digitally savvy consumers are highly focused on the quality of their online experiences. They expect 24/7 availability, instant responses and ease of use. Companies that don’t deliver such experiences risk losing customers and billions in potential revenue. 

During uncertain times such as this, understanding the market and user behaviours is critical and another area where you need the support of a solid strategic partner.


From your landing page to your payment gateway or even the courier you use, customers will not give you their money if they do not trust you. Customers want secure, engaging and consistent online experiences, especially during times like these. 

56 per cent of South African internet users say that social media heavily influences their choices. With the customer journey changing drastically from one driven by loyalty, to one driven by evaluation and re-evaluation, the continuous evaluation cycle has heightened consumer expectations for online stores. 

Brands who stay connected to their customers and their changing needs and who are changing the narrative of uncertainty around us will be the ones customers turn to.  

Whether you take your whole business online or just a few of your products or even a new product or service entirely, now is the time to reinvent your offering while maximising on your investment.

Read more: The Essentials of an E-commerce shop.
Read more: 10 Key strategies to avoid cart abandonment.
Read more:: What is remarketing, and how does it work?

Yaw Dwomoh, CEO Idea Hive
Yaw Dwomoh, CEO Idea Hive

Idea Hive creates and executes pioneering Brand Storytelling Solutions to illuminate a brand’s power. 

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