According to the Adobe 2014 Digital Index, US online sales came in at $2.65 billion, up 16 percent from 2013.

Electronic commerce, or simply e-commerce, is a thriving business around the world, but local technology experts warn that SA is lagging a good way behind.

And with more and more businesses switching from physical transactions to the digital world, experts have identified retailers, and the fact that they’re not taking advantage of the high number of local online shoppers, as the main culprits.

They say SA has a long way to go to match e-commerce levels in many countries, and that great strides are possible, considering that a PayU report found that 75 percent of local consumers participate in the online shopping world here.

Dirk Dijkstra, head of communications at Ensight, said: “Currently, the approach is not about actively engaging with clients on multiple platforms, such as web, mobile and social media. Getting the e-retail model right locally, from a communications perspective, is key to the growth of the e-commerce sector.”

A thriving e-commerce sector, consisting of a vibrant and ever-growing network of social media users, would offer a worthy alternative to traditional shopping for local consumers, he added.

“No longer are they willing to tolerate scattershot, impersonal SMS and e-mail communications that do not speak directly to their requirements, but look to retailers to provide them with information and offers that are relevant to their lives,” Dijkstra said.

Global e-commerce figures, including online retail sales, are set to increase 13.5 percent annually over the next three years, according to worldwide networking firm Cisco Systems.

This means that the sector will be worth $1.4 trillion (R11 trillion) by 2015, with the US, the UK and Japan accounting for 53 percent of e-commerce sales.

A 26 percent increase was also anticipated for countries such as Spain, Brazil, China, Russia and Mexico.

Christo Botes, executive director of Business Partners, said a fully functioning e-commerce sector could also create jobs and assist in skills development in many companies.

“For example, one of our clients is enjoying significant success with a virtual showroom model whereby he sells cars online. South Africa definitely has massive potential in the e-commerce arena, which can potentially be a key driver for SMME (small medium and micro enterprises) growth in the country going forward,” he said, adding that the key for businesses to take advantage of the potential growth was to find a niche target market.

At the end of 2011, UK statistics showed that £68.2 billion (R893bn) was generated through e-retail sales – which accounted for 17 percent of all retail sales in the country.

Botes said this pointed to a definite need for SA to properly integrate e-commerce systems, including the improvement of sales via cellphones.

“In 2011 more than 10 percent of all mobile internet users in South Africa shopped online using their mobile phones.

“Globally, it is estimated that 50 percent of online purchases originate from a combination of online search and social media content,” he said.

Despite the digital interface, e-retailers have been advised to treat the shopping experience as a physical store for customers.

Dijkstra said: “Currently, some consumers have to wait more than two weeks for a product to be delivered, and their expectations during this process need to be managed via multiple communication channels.” This would create a better experience for the shopper, and ultimately increase the number of internet users.

Dijkstra added that factors such as rising fuel costs and the increasing number of wi-fi hotspots added to the attraction of online shopping, yet communication channels as well as internet systems needed to be properly integrated.

“Online shopping has become universal, and anything that you can buy at a store can now be bought via e-retailers, from computers and clothes to groceries and cars. The list is endless, as is the potential for growth of South Africa’s e-commerce sector,” he said. - Weekend Argus