The culture in our e-commerce

Some emerging problems are, however, far easier to solve.

In Summary
  • E-commerce is now our current reality and soon, people may only be visiting brick and mortar stores out of nostalgia
  • If every vendor sells just one thing and operates their own delivery model for it, then the client needs to handle several deliveries all at once.
Illustration of the convenience of online food delivery
Illustration of the convenience of online food delivery

Before 2020 and the pandemic, we talked about e-commerce in futuristic terms.

The idea that one day, people would prefer to shop entirely online still seemed far off, as more and more brick and mortar outlets went up.

That’s not the case anymore, as e-commerce is now our current reality and soon, people may only be visiting brick and mortar stores out of nostalgia, or for after-sales services.

The pandemic and resulting shutdowns and lockdowns might not have triggered this change, but they accelerated it at a pace no one could have foreseen just six months ago.

You can now buy nearly everything online or via a simple phone call, and you probably should, because it is safer and more convenient for everyone involved.

But as more and more vendors offer e-commerce as a primary service, it is becoming clear that there are huge gaps that will need to be solved if such enterprises are to survive and customers are to get value for money.

The biggest one, in my view, is culture.

Our execution of e-commerce has more or less followed a watered-down version of the global model, with the few local elements being that we have a thriving mobile money platform and in the absence of proper addresses in most places, riders and other delivery services have come to rely on a combination of persistent calls and Google maps for directions.

Where though, are the cultural elements that keep our local kiosks and neighbourhood supermarkets alive?

Consider this, there is a reason we prefer to shop for everyday items from vendors near where we live and work. Physical proximity to the seller offers more than just a simple buyer-seller relationship.

It, for example, offers a quick turnaround in case the things we’ve bought are defective in any way. The shopkeeper will replace the packet of milk quickly if it turns out to be expired, even if s/he does not see it, because it is the right thing to do.

The same applies to buying say a TV, from an accessible distributor, just in case there’s something wrong with it and you need to take it back.

Such after-sales services are harder to achieve with e-commerce vendors, especially where they do not have any physical presence in an accessible place.

The only way to get anything done, most times, is to complain openly of social media and hope the repetitional risk forces the vendor to do the right thing.

The seller-buyer dynamics are the same between the shopkeeper and the e-commerce vendor, yet it is seemingly harder to get one to do the right thing than it is with the other.

Monolithic sites such as Amazon fix this by having their own organizational culture and solutions to such complexities.

While a few similar e-commerce platforms exist here with some similar models, none has the kind of monopoly that Amazon has and so each client has to find out for themselves just what happens if a purchase goes wrong.

Add on to the fact that before the pandemic, many online vendors sold one type of product.

This worked because people still bought everyday products from supermarkets and kiosks, shopping online only for things that weren’t necessities.

This has since changed, and you can now even get ready nyama choma and mutura, or the meat products to DIY, delivered right to your doorstep.

Then comes the other problem, what if you need to shop for many things and the only place you can find them now is online?

If every vendor sells just one thing and operates their own delivery model for it, then the client needs to handle several deliveries all at once.

Yet supermarkets exist on the basic premise that it is far easier, and cheaper on overall costs, to buy many things from the same place and organize the delivery for them all at once.

The clashing organizational cultures will be evident, even when it’s clear that some are one-man/one-woman operations.

But of course, there’s a reason why most small-scale e-commerce players do not carry multiple products. It is costly and complicated to hold that much inventory without a clear and predictable market, especially when they are perishables.

Some emerging problems are, however, far easier to solve. You must have seen by now the constant and legitimate complaints of vendors online who offer products for sale but ask potential customers to “DM for prices.” For customers, this suggests many things. One is that there might be different prices for different enquiries, and another is that the lack of a clear price point is a red flag.

Vendors, of course, maybe doing this because they are either undercutting, or even overcharging, their competitors especially where the products are not unique.

But in an open physical market, prices are shouted at you, and negotiations happen within eavesdropping distance of competitors.

offers the customer more choice, as well as ensuring that in their own crude way, the prices remain within market range.

Such options do not exist in e-commerce unless you, as the potential client, do the research first.

There are many other emerging problems that will need market-wide solutions, and probably cultural rules, in our e-commerce present.

This include things like how to verify and rate vendors, how to compare price points, quality control and the practicalities of after-sales services.

It’ll also be interesting to see whether we can find solutions to fraud in e-commerce, such as cases where vendors simply vanish once paid. You’d think that would be easy in a country where a phone number is probably more of an identifier than a national ID card, but it’s not.

For many of these, we only need to look at our traditional markets, and learn from them.

The writer is the Founder and CEO of Sendy