The reshaped retail landscape

By Lola Pedro

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If you own a retail business, you’ll know that the playing field has changed significantly in recent years, particularly within the African context. Where are shopper expectations headed to, and which opportunities can you tap into to fuel your next winning retail innovation? And if you are thinking of starting out in this dynamic sector, what gaps can you look to fill in light of these key trends?

Bad infrastructure, below global average internet penetration, poor service delivery – these are just a few of the issues that the African retail industry faces. Despite this, or perhaps as a result of this, there have been some ingenious innovations which give the West a run for its money. This lag has forced brands to sit up and consider new ways to flip the script. And, in the race to catch up with the rest of the retail world, highly-expectant, globally-aware African consumers will see brands cater to them in ways previously unimaginable. As local companies use online and offline channels, Africa is primed to educate the rest of the world about the ultimate retail experience. Consider these trends and the tactical opportunities they present:

▪ Modern marketplaces
Africa accounts for just 2% of online purchases globally (E-Marketer/Africa Middle East, April 2017). The promise of e-commerce nirvana is only just starting to manifest across Africa. But if it’s to be fully actualised, it has to be done the “African way”. That is, not via online stores owned by a single brand, but by online clusters offering multiple brands, selling various wares in a single hub. Marketplaces are common across Africa, and bartering, communal transactions, active price comparisons and even socialising are part of the informal network they create. In Africa, 85.8% of employment is informal, compared with 25.1% in Europe and Central Asia (International Labour Organisation, April 2018). 

The delayed adoption of e-commerce solutions can, in fact, be partly attributed to the fact that many consumers don’t immediately see a need to convert to a more formalised, digitised mode of shopping. But now, the internet is forcing sellers to think digitally, to consider modern marketplaces where a variety of entities can be accessed on one branded platform. And, with Mali alone having experienced 460% annual digital growth of internet users between 2017 and 2018 (Hootsuite/We are Social, Jan 2018); there is much opportunity for daring brands to provide a modern marketplace for other businesses to offer goods and services to African consumers. But it’s essential to provide the benefits of e-commerce (convenience, accountability, security and more) while retaining the dynamic elements that make offline experiences enjoyable. If you’re going to take consumers out of their comfort zone by helping them to pay bills, as Jumia and Hmizate do, take it slowly. Once users are familiar with your merchant aggregating platform, transition them to brand-driven services.

If you already have a product or service, choose a marketplace that fits your brand, and, just like offline marketplaces, consider how your brand could stand out on retail e-clusters. Flash sales? Targeted offerings or product customisation? If you’re feeling generous, free delivery could attract new (hopefully repeat) customers, in a space where such perks are not yet commonplace. Alternatively, consider services that complement these marketplaces. For example, first-time and anxious e-commerce customers might require insurance or warranties – especially if you’re not a financial services provider. The opportunities here are broad – brainstorm until you’ve exhausted all your options!

▪ Delivery delight
We all know that the struggle is real when it comes to infrastructure (or the lack thereof) in Africa. Not only is it a major strain on daily living for the average consumer, it also makes the most basic tasks such as grabbing lunch burdensome. As the continent continues to develop and grow, expectations about the level and quality of service delivery Africans receive are rising. 2017’s much-heralded collaboration between UNICEF and drone company Zipline created the continent’s first air corridor. It has now successfully delivered over 7,000 units of blood in Rwanda (CNBC, May 2018), proving that bad infrastructure is no longer an excuse for poor service. 

Innovative brands now understand that in order to realise the full potential of the retail industry, overcoming the logistics quandary is an absolute priority. Globally, 40% of logistics companies are expected to provide delivery within two hours of ordering by 2028 (Zebra, April 2018). African consumers don’t exist in a bubble – what they will witness globally will impact their expectation of local players operating in Africa.

If you’re not close enough to your customers to meet their specific logistical needs, work with local businesses. If Zipline and UNICEF can solve the challenge of delivering blood on time, getting a takeaway meal to a customer cold, or a birthday gift to its recipient late, is unacceptable. If you’re already collaborating with a spectacularly efficient delivery brand, think about how your brand can apply the newly freed-up time to provide an even better after-sales service. It’s about time all retail and customer service levels caught up with the rest of the world…

▪ Proudly African
For Africans. By Africans. African Pride. Afro-futurism. Africa Rising. The “Made in Africa” narrative is evergreen, but it has a right to be so. Why? Because we are yet to see the peak of African influence in the global retail arena. Any local retailers that still believe “West is best” need to fast update their strategy. Yes, there’s still some time to tinker with demographic segments who yearn for Western products, but if you’re operating in that territory, make sure you’re offering the very best. European luxury brands, like A. Lange & Söhne who handcraft only a few thousand gold and platinum wristwatches per year, still have a stronghold grip over the world’s wealthy – and that’s not going to change any time soon.

However, the bulk of new consumers are moving on and finding more local (read: more relevant and more practical) status symbols. How can you look inwards and embed quintessentially African culture, aesthetics and narratives into your offerings? Don’t forget that thanks to the new wave of domestically protective regulations, setting up shop in Africa isn’t what it used to be. The African Continental Free Trade Area, announced in March 2018, is one of the world’s largest free trade blocs, involving 44 African nations. If you’re a global brand looking to get your foot through the door, find a local player to partner with to establish authenticity and build credibility, but also just to get things done.

▪  Best behaviour brands
Global lifestyle giants such as Apple, Nike, Pepsi, Facebook or even Uber are typically held to account by their customers/followers/fans for not embodying the right values, for failing to take a stand on issues; even for disingenuous campaigns. Zoom into Africa, and customers have become increasingly tired of how corporate entities interact on the continent.

In 2018 and beyond, these consumers will expect only the very best behaviour, not only from overtly “brand-driven” businesses who are supposed to represent the right ideals, but also from the most invisible and commoditised retail brands too.

This trend has largely been seen in South Africa. However, with the continent converging, dissatisfaction of mass-market brands that lag behind will spread across African countries. Best behaviour brands will rise up from sectors of the retail industry that are typically more lenient to address real issues and deliver genuine initiatives that bolster brand image and ultimately generate more sales.

The key takeaway? Nothing less than best behaviour will be tolerated, for even the least aspirational brands operating in the retail industry. Whatever you call it: social enterprise, triple bottom line, shared value… Every business that delivers on this trend, will sustain a long-term competitive advantage. Consumers will appreciate brands who align with causes they care about and respect them as customers. This is not about good photo opportunities – be sure that whatever cause you choose to champion is a genuine one.

▪  Touchpoint relevance
Africa is a myriad of retail ecosystems, where specificity should be key – but usually isn’t. Stressed consumers don’t need every brand to be everywhere, all the time. Instead, shoppers will increasingly embrace savvy sellers that employ touchpoint relevance to match their idiosyncrasies and are there as and when they’re needed. If modern marketplaces are about taking the tried-and-tested offline shopping experiences online, then touchpoint relevance is about inventing new ways of connecting with customers. Whether offline or online, maintaining your retail product, service or experience distribution through traditional channels is dangerous territory. Put yourself in the shoes of the user, and ask where they’re most likely to be struck with a need that you can meet. Then create a new channel and get there before your competitors. If you are a small brand, without the resources to create true touchpoint relevance, consider creating a larger brand ecosystem and piggybacking off pre-existing platforms, to extend your reach to customers in more exciting ways.

These trends present just a fraction of the new directions taking place in the future of retail. While it’s impossible to be ahead of every innovation, the age-old principle of knowing your customer and their needs remains crucial; and each action flows outwards from there.

This article appeared in the annual retail focus of the August/September issue of Your Business Magazine. To read more retail advice, trends and inspiration, read the free digital issues here.

Lola Pedro is TrendWatching’s Regional Director for Africa.  Email or visit


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