Shift to online retail in Kenya painful

The shift to the Internet has opened competition, benefiting stores that can manage their sourcing and costs. file photo | nmg
The shift to the Internet has opened competition, benefiting stores that can manage their sourcing and costs. file photo | nmg 

Consumers are the lifeblood of any economy. No buying of goods and services equals no incomes for anyone. Which makes the reach to the consumer with goods - the point of purchase, and the ease and quality of its outcomes for the consumer - a bed rock for any successful venture.

Yet as Kenyan retailing finds its way forwards from brick and mortar into the virtual world of e-commerce, it’s journey is emerging as a retrograde experience for consumers, making buying harder than before, more unreliable, and more trying: and thus losing sales that support every business.

In this, my top prize surely goes to the e-commerce ventures typified by sports store Nairobi Sports House. A solid multi-store brick-and-mortar retailer, Nairobi Sports House predates many a recent, branded sports store entrant. My own kids grew up wearing Nairobi Sports House rugby shields.

Yet, by 2017, Nairobi Sports House has become one of a class of retailers caught in a cultural morass, at the point where old-style Kenyan retailing ways meet the Internet.

For in the very old retail world, pricing was a secret. Retailers wanted to make every sale for the biggest margin possible – the theorists call it differentiated pricing - so nothing wore a price label, and the game was to get the big margins on those who would pay them.

It was a retailing approach that nominally predated Nairobi Sports House. The sports store was part of the new world of retailing that put price labels on its goods. Arrived was pricing that covered the store’s costs with a margin, on pricing spread evenly across all.

Indeed, across Kenyan retailing, we got to move to set pricing. None of us ended up at any of our now beleaguered supermarket’s tills suggesting we pay some shillings less for the cornflakes, or making an offer on the milk. Over years, we gained a retailing sector, where the price was the price. Until the Internet.

Elsewhere, the shift to the Internet has opened competition, benefiting stores that can manage their sourcing and costs to deliver the lowest prices, or the best value, or the best products, fastest.

But, in Kenya, the journey is proving more painful, breeding a new type of online store - still with product listings, still with some notional shopping cart: but not a price to be seen. But consumers don’t buy at ‘any price’.

So Nairobi SportsHouse lost my own online purchase of a table tennis table last week. I don’t know how much it is selling its tables for, it being a secret: it sells them, but having found one that looked like what I wanted, its next step was that I ‘ring for a quote’.

Thus, we now move from stores that put prices on goods, to virtual stores that are a price secrecy zone that requires a private phone call for a quote. Even on tennis balls.

And this from the same stores that never asked us to apply at the counter for the cost of every single item before us. For sure, it’s a great way to get left behind.

And that even as the new-style online traders struggle.

As it is, Jumia was offering tables from a supplier in CBD for Sh43,000, and that baulked me too.

I’ve bought on Jumia only to get a sweet notification, literally at the delivery deadline - and having organised cash and someone in the house to be there to pay – telling me that the order couldn’t, after all, be serviced, with my days gone, and now no product.

Jumia accepts orders, but its inventory system, and sometimes days to unravel availability, mean that any order may or may not result in a delivery.

Moreover, supplier details that stop at ‘CBD’ don’t inspire my trust, whereas Nairobi Sports House does.

Thus, across our murky and half-hearted efforts at e-commerce, the consumer win seems comprehensively lost.

Yet success doesn’t take so very much, versus renting expensive retail premises. We need supplier details (and preferably ratings for performance), prices, an inventory system that shows availability, and the goods to arrive. Then, we’ll buy them.