Albert Bredenhann
Albert Bredenhann

The challenges facing online shopping in South Africa

Online shopping has become a worldwide phenomenon due to the increasing availability of broadband and computer literacy. But is South Africa on par with the rest of the world? Not yet, but we will be if we can overcome a few stumbling blocks.

The number-one reason for online shopping in South Africa not being where it could be is undoubtedly access to the internet. Although the number of people who have access to the internet is increasing every year and even every month, we are still not where we should be.

The cost of internet access in South Africa is also significantly higher than in other countries especially compared to those in Europe and the US. We have, however, seen some price slashes recently — especially from Telkom — which means that costs are slowly but surely coming down. This is a positive sign for the future. There is, however, debate regarding whether the fall of Telkom’s monopoly in ADSL line provisions with the introduction of another service provider will have any significant impact on the price of broadband in South Africa.

Another contributing factor to the current state of online shopping is the fact the major players in the retail industry in South Africa do not have an online presence whatsoever. Take for example Hi-Fi Corporation. Its website consists of a list of stores and its latest specials pamphlets. (If you are lucky, as these aren’t always available.) Other players such as Reggies, Clicks, Game, Checkers Hyper, Spar and Builders Warehouse, to name but a few, have no presence to speak of either. Why do they not follow the example set by Pick ‘n Pay? Convenient grocery shopping must be every mother’s dream! Pick ‘n Pay has managed to establish a very popular online store that is used by thousands every month with very few complaints. So, get the major players involved and we will surely see an increase in online shopping in South Africa.

The third factor to be considered is that of delivery in South Africa. The unreliability of courier companies and fluctuating delivery charges are hindering factors in getting products to the customers in a timely and cost-effective manner. This problem goes hand in hand with the fact that most online stores do not actually carry stock, which means consumers wait even longer for their purchases, making shopping online very unattractive. I would rather drive to a store go in and buy what I want and have it immediately than order something online and wait three weeks for the product.

There are many more issues that affect online shopping in South Africa negatively, such as a lack of education regarding the security of shopping on the internet. We do not think twice before giving a waiter in a restaurant our credit card, but hesitate to use it on a secure site on the internet.

So how do we overcome these obstacles and prove to South African consumers that there are real advantages to shopping online? We need to get the major players involved and convince them of the profitability of having an online presence and we need to ensure that those who are connected to the internet have the knowledge to feel safe in shopping online. Surely it is only a matter of time before the costs of internet comes down in South Africa and people flock to the online stores.

  • Eve Dmochowska

    I would be interested to know the shopping habits of those who DO shop online, especially their preference for local vs int’l sites. I am an avid online purchaser, especially from Amazon, but the last time I bought something (successfully) from a local online shop was my Palm from Digital Planet, about 2 years ago. Why? Because I couldn’t find an offline store that sold it!
    You’re right that there are numerous problems and obstacles that online shops face: starting from simply getting the word out there, to building trust and delivering a good service.
    Online shops must give us a good incentive to use them, and their best bet is convenience and price. As you point out, ultimate convenience isn’t often delivered, usually because the websites are not up to scratch. I ordered a book from EBooks four months ago, and am STILL waiting for it. No emails, apologies, explanations. Just me having to call and query. Frankly, even if the books were half the price at EB (what an if!), I will just stick with Amazon in the future. Pity.

  • Albert Bredenhann

    Eve, from what I hear, it all boils down to 3 things … Service, service and service. And service in the online world has a lot to do with communication via email, sms and even telephone. A good online store will be measured in the service that they give. It takes 1 minute to write an email … and that one minute could make such a big difference.

  • Joy-Mari Cloete

    Perhaps I’m the exception because I prefer online shopping. However, I would think twice to do my grocery shopping online, for the very reasons you mentioned.

    I used to work in a major retail chain’s online shopping department and the constant out-of-stocks were depressing. They need to implement a way to reflect oos items on the website – quickly!

    Oh, and educate everyone involved in the delivery chain to give only the best service possible.

  • Bernard

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts. The issues your addressed are indeed holding ecommerce back in SA.

    I would estimate that SA is about 5 to 7 years behind the US in terms of e-commerce.

    Another problem I see is the lack of quality online shops in terms of design and technology. Online marketing and brand building is also an area that has to be improved.

    With the rising fuel prices and congested malls online shopping should start to pick up pretty soon.

    I would just like to mention our company, Wooza Shop, that is specialising in online shop development. We are aimed at the start-up level to enable entrepreneurs to sell their products online at low cost. The site is

    Anyway, thanks Albert for a great article.

  • Scott Ryan

    I do not think that the major challenge is the cost of internet – as this cost should be offset by the savings from buying online. I think that your last point is the key factor. There are some sites trying to offer e-retail, but they are being crippled by expensive and unreliable delivery. The larger players are also just simply not interested, because there is no point. No competition means that they can keep their prices relatively high.

  • Online shopper

    I’ve been a dedicated online shopper for 10 years and couldn’t live without it! I buy everything from groceries to furniture online and love the convenience, but I do wish more of the big brands like Clicks and Game would offer online shopping.

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