The South African E-Tail Experience
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If you're not trusted, you can't do business online. This was a key message delivered by three speakers at the Digital Interactive Media Association's (DIMA) conference on South African e-tailing Thursday morning. Speakers from online financial services agent Mylife@bluebean, eBucks -- "The worlds first real electronic currency" -- and online grocer Inthebag all discussed their e-tail experiences, similar in several respects.
They all agreed that an effectively-integrated offline component is vital. Joe Van Niekerk, business director at MyLife, said that the Internet is not a new marketplace, it's a new channel. Jolande Duvenage, part of the marketing team at eBucks, emphasized the importance of getting buy-ins from corporate parents. Meanwhile, Jessica Knight, chief executive officer of Inthebag, went so far as to relegate pure play Internet ventures to a "Losers' Graveyard."
While the physical infrastructure an offline component provides was noted (particularly by Inthebag), it was secondary. There's only two online senses, sight and sound, and many of us turn off the latter. You can't touch, you can't taste, you can't be reassured by a handshake. You must trust. And what do we trust? Human interaction and the brand.
A human voice at the other end of the phone, a well-presented courier, a bank manager's look of concentration, can only be found in the real world. And when a client does go online, they want reassurance, easily provided by a brand nurtured offline for years with a carefully utilized marketing budget.
Once customers are reassured and utilizing online services, price stands in the shadow of control, security and convenience. After all, it is the affluent in South Africa that use the Internet, a group willing to pay a little more to get what they want.
"The consumer will be drawn to firms that help them map out their financial future," Duvenage said; "Trust, not pricing, is important," said Niekerk; "The convenience is more important than the price," was Knight's verdict.
While all three speakers detailed numerous aspects of their individual businesses, what is of most broad relevance is the following points: firstly, an offline component is essential to an online venture, preferably one with a strong brand; secondly, given the affluence of SA surfers, price is secondary to more emotional qualities like control, convenience and trust.
Finally all three speakers were optimistic about the future, citing statistics that indicate the more comfortable someone is online, the more likely they are to buy. Additionally, their experience shows that once someone buys, they're likely to continue buying online. Given that there's only really been an online e-tail offering for the last year (according to Inthebag, anyway), we expect significant growth in B2C e-commerce in a years time.
The difficulty will lie in keeping the online consumer's business. When people do become comfortable shopping online, business will quickly become comfortable selling online, thus steadily increasing competition. Given the price transparency and the ease of movement the web creates, establishing and maintaining good customer relationships is even more critical online than off.
However, based on the anecdotal evidence, it seems that B2C is alive and well in South Africa. As this fact becomes common knowledge, the war for hearts and minds will begin in earnest online. And, like most things online, we can expect this war to be more efficient than the one waged offline.