SOUTH AFRICA – The Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and temporary ban of non-essential products and services have prompted a surge in e-commerce transactions, with increasing numbers of consumers choosing to shop online instead of physically visiting shops. 

According to a recent Nielsen syndicated study on the impact of the lockdown on consumer behaviour in South Africa, there has been a sharp uptick of South Africans shopping online, with 37% of the respondents saying they are shopping more online. 

“South Africa’s online grocery-shopping penetration and usage has also been quite niche and of the 58% of South Africans with internet access, only 1-2% had regularly purchased food and groceries online, and only 8 -10% have purchased in the past year,” Nielsen South Africa Retailer lead Gareth Paterson said. 

“However, one-third of consumers had expressed a willingness to shop online. This, coupled with the current lockdown scenario, means there is likely to be prolonged behavioural changes in in-store and online shopping, with services like click and collect, automated online subscriptions, and personal shopping all having the potential for growth.”

He pointed out that the available online shopping platforms, especially for groceries, medicines, and other necessary items, have seen a surge in usage over the last few weeks as consumers prefer not to venture into stores and have increasingly opted for these reduced touch-point alternatives. 

“We can therefore expect a permanent uplift in online shopping numbers – albeit off a small base in South Africa – even after the pandemic has ended, since many behaviours adopted during the Covid-19 period are likely to translate into more permanent long term habits,” he added. 

This development points to an interesting shift in shopping behaviour. Where previously fashion, travel and entertainment categories have been the front runners for consumers to enter the online retail sphere, with grocery categories, particularly packaged and fresh goods, being slower to gain traction; the lockdown has now accelerated adoption of online shopping for some of these categories. 

Unfortunately, this rapid rise in popularity has also highlighted constraints in current online offerings, for example, extended delivery timelines for online shopping options, as retailers have had to boost their online capacity to match the increasing online shopper traffic and maintain their ability to fulfil the demand from consumers.

Another outcome of the current situation is the emergence of local innovations to fill the need gap. For example, services where consumers place an order with a retailer and have their order delivered to their car in a pre-arranged parking bay have emerged, ensuring not only increased health and safety but speedier fulfilment of online orders.

Existing online retailers have also quickly shifted their existing product offering to supply essential goods, such as a large eCommerce gifting platform now delivering fresh produce and former Uber Eats drivers who are maintaining an income through the delivery of groceries for retailers.

Paterson says what this rapid evolution in online makes clear is that technology adoption in the current situation is paving the way for a sustained development of online shopping, in terms of infrastructure and consumer acceptance. 

However, Paterson cautions that retailers will need to quickly address the main barriers or hesitations that non-users had expressed in the past – be it freshness guarantees or free delivery.

“It will be critical for retailers to make the migration from offline to online as seamless as possible by communicating potential stock outages, advising of delayed delivery timelines, and providing additional online navigation tools and support to first-time users on their platforms will be key to keeping consumers online once stores reopen their doors,” he concludes.