Whenever Genevieve Awino is planning to shop for an item, she scours the internet to sample different dealers, analyse product features and compare prices.
Fashion items, beauty accessories and electronics top the list of premium products the Nairobi-based graphics designer occasionally orders on the web, from both local and overseas retailers.
Like most online buyers, Genevieve is price-sensitive and a bargain hunter. As such, she sometimes searches without intending to close deals. “Acquainting myself with prices helps me budget for the time I will be ready to spend money,” she says.
Genevieve is only one in a growing list of Kenyan cybershoppers.
Slightly over a decade ago, online shopping was a remote concept to most Kenyans. It was also considered a territory for Kenyans with a fat disposable income. Not so today.
Whether you wish to buy a premium product from an overseas retailer to gift a friend or furniture for your house from a workshop in a different county, or simply to order lunch from a restaurant two blocks away from your office, doing so online is the easiest and most convenient way.
You do not have to go to Jumia, Kilimall or Amazon to shop online. You also do not have to own a credit card to transact on the web.
If you have ever enquired about and went ahead to pay for a product a friend had shared on a Facebook or WhatsApp group you belong to, you have shopped online.
If you occasionally search for product prices, quality and specifications on the web to influence your purchasing decisions, whether online or offline, you are a digital shopper.
Similarly, with a smartphone, a network connection and a few items to sell, you can now become an online trader. Being a trader has never been easier.
Technology has opened up the business space for both sellers and buyers. In Africa, Kenya ranks third in terms of the volume of goods shopped online, bettered only by Nigeria and South Africa.
“I love unique designs, which I can get online at a fair price. I buy mostly from overseas suppliers because price comparisons between different suppliers is easier,” Genevieve adds.
Ken Mutua, another regular online shopper, says most local walk-in perfume shops do not stock his favourite brand of fragrance, leaving him with only one option: to buy online.
“I am always happy to pay the shipping fee, which is better than having to settle for other brands of perfume,’’ he says.
While customers are the biggest beneficiaries of online trade owing to its convenience, it has served as a wake-up call to owners of traditional shops of consumer goods.
Auto shops too have taken to the virtual space as dealers hope to market their businesses beyond their yards.
Gigi Motors and Cheki, which sell new and used cars, are some of the Kenyan auto shops operating from the web.
Besides pricing insights, these sites offer important tips to prospective buyers such as the range of services available and car maintenance. This in turn helps customers to make informed decisions before buying.
The frustration of seeing only a handful of customers walk into his men’s outfits shop forced Frank Kuria to move his shop online.
While he still owns a physical shop at Globe Business Centre in Nairobi, most of the operations are now online.
“Initially, I would simply post photos of my products and simply enjoy the likes. These days, I actively engage my clients on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. I also handle their enquiries more seriously. I have even started a page on Instagram, specifically for the business,” says Frank.
Operating digitally, he says, has ensured a wider reach and allowed him to interact more closely with prospective clients.
“Buying clothes is a very personal affair because people have very distinct preferences. My clients order for outfits, pay for them via mobile money before collecting the products later or having them delivered to them,” he says.
Frank adds that a stronger digital foothold is at the heart of his expansion plans in the next few months.
“There is also less traffic in my shop, which means I am able to handle walk-in clients alone. This way, I don’t have to hire an assistant, which would be an added expense, considering I am also paying rent,” he says.
Samantha Nyakoe though runs her ladies' outfits shop, Closet Plug, exclusively on Instagram. As such, she walks with her shop in her hands.
“I have been selling ladies’ high-waist vintage and palazzo pants for five months now. My clientele is very specific. This eliminates the possibility of dead stock that comes with a regular shop,” says Nyakoe, an international relations student at USIU-Africa.
She buys her wares from thrift stores at Gikomba market before selling them online to her clients.
“My clients are mostly professionals and university students who may not have the time to go to the market to shop for clothes,” she says.
For a student trying to earn a buck on the side, Samantha says she could not afford to set up a walk-in shop because of rent, branding expenses and the need to buy furniture.
“With lectures to attend, starting a physical shop would have been inconveniencing for me,” she explains.
As long as her products are displayed on her Instagram page, her business is running.
She can comfortably handle other activities and still attend to her clients from anywhere and at any time, including late at night.
Her clients pay for products through mobile money. Others pay upon delivery, which she does herself to avoid unnecessary expenses.
“I usually drop them off in town from where clients collect them at their convenience,” she adds.
Once one has established a significant following on social media, they are good to go. “You build your clientele as you go, mostly through referrals,” she says.
A cyber business has its unique challenges. “There are days when an outfit fails to meet the buyer’s expectations. When this happens, you are forced to exchange it or refund their money,’’ Samantha says.
Genevieve agrees, saying that some sellers on social media are deceitful. “Some traders lift photos from the internet and post them on their pages to give the impression of high quality products when in reality their products are inferior in comparison. This is especially common with food, fashion items and interior décor,” she says.
When Genevieve started shopping online three years ago, she was anxious she might be swindled. This fear has since fizzled out.
“I started with items selling at Sh1,000 or less. Over time though, my confidence has grown with the reliability of the suppliers such as Alibaba Express and Jumia. I can now comfortably buy items worth more money on the web,” says Genevieve.
For her, product and supplier reviews help her build trust with the seller.
Sellers observe that online clients are fickle and easily swayed to different stores, which makes it harder to establish loyalty.
“Some potential clients will ask questions and even negotiate the prices but end up not buying the item. You don’t close a deal in every conversation. This is sometimes frustrating,” Samantha says.
Suleiman Kipkoech, the director of Dobetech Solutions Ltd, a computer and computer accessories shop, told the Saturday Nation that the footfalls at his shop on Moi Avenue has drastically reduced in the past few years, owing to the increasing number of online shops dealing in similar products.
“Most people who walk into our shop are clients we have known for long and served on multiple occasions. The rest are people referred to us by our loyal clients,” says Suleiman.
He says by the time clients visit his shop, they already know the price range of the product they are looking to buy, thanks to online stores.
“To win over such clients, I have to offer them other incentives such as after-sale services and top that up with other accessories at reduced prices,” he says.
With the unyielding competition from online stores, Suleiman has also had to change tack.
“Nowadays, I am constantly reviewing product prices by online stores. I have also had to harmonise my prices with those of other retailers, both online and offline. Capitalising on their shortcomings has helped me remain in business,” he says, adding that soon he will take his business to the virtual scene.
Convenient as it is, online buying encourages arbitrary spending. Genevieve admits being a victim.
“I can’t resist a good bargain online, which often leads to spending more than I have budgeted for. Keeping things in my wish list though helps me to stagger the cost.
"Some items may run out of stock before I complete the order, which keeps me from impulse buying,” she says.