A chance meeting with a disgruntled customer, swearing by the first name of his mother has prompted this article. My newly found acquaintance needed a listening ear to which he could offload the baggage on his chest, and by mere misfortune, I became that unfortunate soul. However, without hindsight, here I am, with a subject matter to educate and entertain you with.
For the purposes of clarity, I will just call him John, and there could be other Johns out there in a similar predicament, I share your frustrations and that is not how this industry should market itself to you. John feels duped by a local B2C e-commerce company, and for that reason only, I felt it necessary to address the health of our e-commerce ecosystem and why it is failing to gain real traction. It is always a human pain point to purchase and pay for something, only to never receive or get it.
Yours truly has also tried to contact the company in question, let me state that, so far my efforts have been fruitless. I wasn’t really disappointed by the lack of response to customer inquiries, rather the lack of communication with the customer base. It is a cancer prevalent in our business environment and taking customers for granted has been normalized to the extent that the Godfathers of customer service should be turning in their graves in disgust.
Anyway, with the growth of e-commerce globally, quite a few technology enthusiastic entrepreneurs always decide to test it locally, including even some well-known supermarkets and corporates. As much as, Amazon, Alibaba etc., are now global e-commerce icons, it always seems lost on most of those entering this sphere that initially all of these icons were burning money at the speed of lighting without making a profit.
The real challenge for our local e-commerce ecosystem is the disease of just cloning ideas motivated by making a quick profit, and nobody ever seems interested in building the infrastructure or systems necessary to succeed. Amazon, Alibaba and the other recognizable global e-commerce enterprises had to endure years of making mistakes while building the systems and infrastructure that is now the basis of their success. It simply doesn’t happen overnight, and neither did the major players in e-commerce happen overnight.
E-commerce is not meant for those looking for a get rich quickly scheme, because it can’t be turned into even a medium term Ponzi scheme since there is a limit as to the number of people you can dupe before your luck runs out. Once an entrepreneur decides to become part of the e-commerce ecosystem they should be motivated by the long-term prospects and not short-term gains.
Econet Wireless, for instance, began just merely mentioning Ownai their online classifieds platform in their 2016 Annual Report. According to Econet Wireless, “Ownai is a FREE Online market platform for Econet Wireless Zimbabwe subscribers to find, buy, place and sell a wide range of products and services online with ease and convenience. The zero-rated (free browsing) multi-channel platform offers a traditional website and mobile optimized site for smartphones. In future, it will also offer more sites for feature phones and USSD service and Android/iOS apps. Ownai will evolve into an online market with storefronts, EcoCash online payments, inventory management tools and order fulfillment.”
What can be deduced from the aforementioned statement, the company will one day morph the platform into either an Alibaba clone or even a combination of Alibaba and WeChat-everything is open to subjective interpretations, assumptions and speculation, however, two things are beyond reasonable doubt as of now. Firstly, Ownai is still miles away from transforming itself into what it envisions itself being. And secondly, the e-commerce platform is even further away from providing any financial significance to the consolidated bottom-line.
With all their financial muscle, a company such as Econet is still in the e-commerce wilderness despite having its skin in the game for slightly close to 3 years and still seeking relevance. This fact should be very important to every entrepreneur, e-commerce is not a sprint; rather it is an excruciating marathon.
If an unfair advantage over the competition and access to the largest mobile subscriber base in the country at zero-rated browsing of their website, can’t generate Econet instant success, what about a financially crippled entrepreneur in a garage somewhere with high hopes for instant success, the odds are not favourable, and are heavily stacked against them, it can only be downhill. Chasing instant gratification is the main reason why the local e-commerce ecosystem is suffering so many still-births.
The dark side of being motivated by financial rewards is that once the financial rewards don’t materialize; the motivation will fizzle out. This is the main reason why we see a lot of e-commerce websites mushrooming-most of them lacking planning, creativity, and imagination because they would have been hastily launched with an intention that is misguided by an assumption of supposedly going to become the next e-commerce sensation- and also quickly disappearing from the radar, because of a lack of any meaningful strategy, whether logistical, operational, financial etc.
This has been an overview of how the writer sees the local e-commerce ecosystem from his own vantage point, and it suffices to say, in the following paragraphs and subsequent articles I will try to suggest possible remedies of how the ecosystem can be fixed; besides it might not be conclusive. In addition, as in any competition, eventually the weak fall by the wayside, and so it is with our local e-commerce ecosystem, anyone with genuine ideas of the direction in which to take the industry will have unlimited opportunities and the world at his or her feet. Just be agile and nimble, and you will be the envy of most as they search for answers for the simple question, “were exactly, did we fail to join the dots all this time?”
The moment you decide that you are going to be an e-commerce entrepreneur, make sure you have adequate money to initially fund the following; development and design of a website that is mobile-friendly, social media marketing especially on Facebook, purchasing inventory- although this is determined by the type of platform one has developed, if it is a third party marketplace then it might not be necessary, nevertheless, if it Is a clone of www.walmart.com, www.amazon.com or www.loot.co.za etc., then you need money for inventory, customer and supplier education events.
There are essential tools that an e-commerce company requires before it is even launched, and a website is one of them. Now, when Amazon or Alibaba set-up shop, their websites were pathetic and they could get away with murder because the internet was just getting started and was still not widely used like today. There are so many well-designed websites on the internet, and merely customizing a WordPress template won’t do much to provide you with the street credibility that you are craving for your hustle.
The website should be an excuse for even for people with no concrete intentions to make an online purchase to visit, and not create an impression that your idea of a website is still sentimentally attached to the stone ages. A website is part of branding the business, and it is unfortunate that local businesses don’t take their branding seriously, and yet expect customers to sympathize with them just because they are a Zimbabwean company. Apart from the website being well thought out, creatively developed and designed, it should also be mobile-friendly. Although developing a mobile App might still not be possible, let the website do the magic for you, and spur the growth of your business that you desire.
If your marketing budget is not flexible enough to allow you to have an insignificant amount such as $3 to promote your business on Facebook, then you have no reason to be starting an e-commerce company. E-commerce strives on marketing, promotion, and advertising to get the attention of the potential customers. Social media is so grossly under-priced such that sometimes, I wonder why companies with insignificant marketing budgets still waste the limited resource on traditional channels when just $3 can get you into eyeballs running into several thousands for a reasonable limited time-frame.
Moreover, the social networks have become so sophisticated to be able to provide anyone with metrics to measure what their efforts are achieving on their platforms. This means that with a click of a mouse you can see how many views or the reach of your promotion or posting, as an example. Business life has never been this easy and cheap, to create positive brand awareness.
Lastly, inventory and education events will be part of the subject matter of follow up articles, because space has become a challenge. Keep the entrepreneurial spirit and flame burning; the password to unlock the hidden treasures is not that far away from your reach. Thus, the still-births within our e-commerce ecosystem have been necessary growing pains in our endeavours to embrace what has become a gold standard of conducting commerce easily and without limitations.