Epidemic low-hanging fruit for online shops

Sunday March 22 2020

A screenshot of Jumia website. In recent years, more Kenyans have opted for the convenience of online buying. PHOTO | FILE


The Covid-19 pandemic has struck. A government directive tells people to avoid crowded places and observe social distance. Schools and colleges are closed. Employees are being told to work from home. The towns and cities are deserted.

Kenya has so far recorded 15 cases of infection. Globally, the disease has killed thousands of people. Certainly, Kenyans would like to remain safe — and here is a low-hanging fruit for e-commerce, albeit, sadly, coming in the most unfortunate of circumstances.

E-commerce giants such as Flipkart, Amazon and Bigbasket have registered a 20-30 per cent spike in orders. A February 2020 Coresight Research survey showed that 27.5 per cent of internet users in the United States were avoiding public places and 58 per cent would do so if the outbreak worsened.


Recent research by the Communication Authority of Kenya (CA) shows only 0.5 per cent of Kenyans bought products online. That means the industry players have barely scratched the surface on the potential of e-commerce.

However, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there is an unprecedented shift in consumer behaviour. Kenyans are ditching shopping malls, restaurants and bars. Most are going online to buy household items, including groceries.


Though that could increase e-commerce penetration, the question is: Is this shift from brick and mortar to digital sustainable? Will industry players ensure the curve grows?

As recently as a month ago, many Kenyans did not believe in buying goods online. Trust has been a big issue but many e-commerce platforms have devised ways of dealing with it — including introducing the pay-on-delivery business model.

The waiver of fees by most financial institutions will certainly increase card payments from the 10 per cent penetration for online shoppers. Consumer education is also sacrosanct. Support functions for such companies will come in handy as Kenyans troop to the online marketplace.


The ability to address issues such as delays will dictate the sustainability of this shift. And seeing as this is not a local but global pandemic, the platforms must also ensure easy accessibility as those that quickly adapt to consumer needs will carry the day.

Adopting the use of USSD, the “quick codes” for mobile data, for instance, and opening up e-commerce platforms is only crucial but necessary in preventing the spread of the disease. Such a move, among many others worth exploring, will not only help in this time of need but also test the agility the platforms during a crisis.

It will be important, however, that these platforms ensure their employees’ safety as they make deliveries. The virus affects consumers and delivery staff alike. Rigorous and constant education and equipping the employees better is important in ensuring that they are confident enough to work amid the pandemic.

That will, in turn, dictate how long the delivery window will remain stay open; which will eventually affect customer satisfaction and chart their post-pandemic loyalty.

But the major test will be ability to balance demand versus supply in a timely fashion to ensure a permanent shift of behaviour. And it will evidently take more than just coronavirus to achieve that.

Ms Buyole is a PR and communications consultant. [email protected]