Online shopping is a growing trend and a competitive form of retail, but doesn’t mean customers’ expectations are any lower , writes Georgina Crouth

It’s as convenient as a click away: we log onto our ­devices, surf the internet for goods, compare specifications and prices, settle on a deal, and pay.

You’re not limited to a physical store or even country, which opens up a world of ways to spend your money. And you don’t have to wait for snail mail – it’s delivered to your door.

Last month, PricewaterhouseCoopers released the findings of their Retail in ­Africa 2016 report, which focused on sub-Saharan Africa’s retail and consumer sector.

The economies in question – South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, ­Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Ivory Coast – were assessed based on expansion opportunities for retail and consumer businesses looking to expand across the continent.

The report found that online business was booming as consumers were increasingly electing to do their shopping online.

The findings suggest early trends in China are usually only seen several years later in other markets, with 65% of Chinese consumers saying they shop at least once a month on their mobile device, compared to only 28% of PwC’s overall global sample of shoppers.

Anton Hugo, retail and consumer industry leader for PwC Africa, noted: “Chinese shopping behaviour is a leading indicator for global shopping behaviours. What Chinese ­consumers are doing today, shoppers in many parts of the world will be doing in the not-too-distant future.

China and emerging markets, in particular, will continue to set the pace in terms of mobile and social shopping because of lack of legacy technology such as PCs, and consumers’ enthusiastic embrace of personal technology.”

The survey findings show affordability is a major driver for shopping behaviour around the world, but in some countries convenience was a big factor.

Fifty-seven percent of South African online shoppers said convenience was their main influencer, and just over half said they would buy from an out-of-country online retailer if they could get better prices.

Yet, the physical store remains important because many people prefer seeing and touching a product.

Consumer electronics is one example where 47% of consumers in South Africa do their research online, but 60% then buy in store.

Unsurprisingly, social media is where it’s at: a whopping 88% of respondents were influenced by social media, compared to 78% of respondents globally.

It seems consumers in emerging markets are far more influenced by social media (92%) than those in established countries (66%).

Of those who had an interaction with a ­favourite brand on social media, 81% said it had led them to respect or value the brand more (64% globally).

But the survey noted only about 4% of South African respondents shopped online last year – a 1% increase from 2014; “26% made their first online purchase in the past year; books, music, movies and video games are the favourite categ­ories for online shopping; 57% say they do not buy groceries online; 33% of respondents access loyalty/rewards programmes on their mobile devices”.

“Digital technology continues to disrupt the retail industry and global consumers are more empowered than ever. Retailers need to adapt to ensure they remain relevant. The speed of technology adoption has raised the stakes for both retailers and their consumer packaged-goods partners,” Hugo said.

The stakes are becoming higher, which is why it’s important for retailers to ensure a positive customer experience.

Not so for Henk van der Veen, who was rather upset with takealot after buying a deal, but not receiving what he had ordered.

“I recently purchased an ‘unboxed deal’ from takealot, a bundle which consisted of five items – a laptop, printer, laptop bag, 3G wi-fi dongle and memory stick. Only one such deal was available.

“Upon delivery on March 3, the laptop and memory stick were not included, and I immediately notified takealot. To cut a long story short, takealot can’t find the laptop and offered to refund me the R4 000.

“I maintain the fault lies on their side and they have to honour the agreement – they offered a product for sale, I accepted, gave them my money and only then do they say, ‘oh sorry, we never had the product in stock in the first place’.

“I’ve maintained I want a laptop with the same or similar specs delivered to honour the agreement – I’ve told them they can recoup the difference from the member of staff responsible. If their internal controls are lacking, why should it affect me? Where do I stand on this in terms of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA)?

“The ‘unboxed’ deals were suspended a couple days after my delivery – seems they encountered many problems with customers receiving faulty items. All links were removed from their site. Unboxed deals related to previously sold or shop-soiled items that were returned for whatever reason and were supposed to carry a six-month takealot warranty, but no manufacturers’ warranty.”

In fact, the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, which has its own provisions for the online retail environment, trumps the CPA in this case. And the supplier – takealot – does have to honour the deal, said Ouma Ramaru, the office and complaint administrator at the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman, but it depends on their terms and conditions.

The ombudsman, Neville Melville, then said: “A supplier can specify in its terms when an e-commerce transaction is completed, so long as this is brought to the attention of the consumer. If it does so and indicates that the contract will be formed only if the customer’s order is accepted by the seller, the seller is not bound by an error in the price or if stock is not available.

“If, however, the supplier doesn’t make such a stipulation, the default position is that the agreement and any error in the price becomes binding upon acceptance by the consumer. This is unless there was such a large discrepancy with the usual price that a consumer ought to have realised that there was a mistake.”

In its terms and conditions, the online retailer says: “takealot, or the third-party seller, will indicate the acceptance of your order by delivering the goods to you or allowing you to collect them, and only at that point will an agreement of sale between you and takealot or the third-party seller come into effect (the ‘sale’).

“This is regardless of any communication from takealot stating that your order or payment has been confirmed. takealot will indicate the rejection of your order… by cancelling it and, as soon as possible thereafter, refunding you for any amount already paid.

“You acknowledge that stock of all goods on offer is limited and that pricing may change at any time without ­notice to you. In the case of goods for sale by takealot, takealot will take all reasonable efforts to monitor stock levels and ensure that when stock is no longer available, that offers thereof are discontinued on the website.

“However, we cannot guarantee the availability of stock. When goods are no longer available after placing an ­order, takealot will notify you and you will be entitled to a refund of the amount paid by you for such goods. 

“takealot’s obligation to deliver a product to you is fulfilled when we deliver the product to the physical address nominated by you for delivery of the order.”

They’ve covered themselves in terms of stock availability, but Van der Veen was never notified of the error and only picked it up once he opened the box.

An advisory from the ombud notes: “A supplier can specify in its terms when an e-commerce transaction is completed, so long as this is brought to the attention of the consumer. If it does so and indicates that, the contract will be formed only if the customer’s order is accepted by the seller.”

I asked takealot about the deal and a representative admitted: “This particular one-off bundle deal was unfortunately missing two parts on delivery to our customer. While we take every reasonable measure to make sure nothing is lost during the packing or transport of our orders, occasionally it can happen.

“When this occurs, whether an unboxed deal or a standard product order, our returns policy is the same: to find the best, simplest solution for the customer in the fastest time. Any incomplete order will be collected by us at no charge and, once validated, our team will either source the missing parts to deliver the complete order or, if they are unavailable (as they were in this case), we’ll offer a refund or account credit, whichever our customer prefers.

“Unfortunately in this case, we’ve discovered that our ­customer was given incorrect information during the refund process.

“To make amends, we’ve made an exception to our ­refund policy and will be honouring the promise made to our customer of replacing the missing parts of his original order. We have since sourced an alternative laptop of similar specifications, and the ­customer is satisfied.”

Van der Veen’s case might be the exception, but he was rightly incensed because he had entered into a contract with takealot: he bought the unboxed deal, which was supposed to contain that laptop especially, and the memory stick, but when those didn’t arrive, takealot simply said they couldn’t locate the items so he was offered a credit or a refund.

To their credit, they rectified the issue, but he possibly wouldn’t have received those if he hadn’t been so persistent.


Wise up – here's how

KNOW THE DEAL: If you’re ordering online, the goods must be delivered by an agreed date, time and place. If not, you can either cancel the deal or accept it. If you cancel, the refund must be made within 30 days.

UNHAPPY WITH THE RESULT? If you didn’t get to examine the goods on arrival, and aren’t happy with your delivery – whether it’s because it isn’t what you wanted, it doesn’t fit the purpose for which it was bought, or doesn’t resemble what you wanted – you can return it without penalty.

RIGHT OF RETURN: You have a general right of return – for any reason – seven days after delivery has been accepted (barring some exclusions), but you are liable for the cost of returning the goods.

THOSE PESKY Ts AND Cs: How many of us take the time to read the fine print? Do read the terms and conditions, because if you blindly click “yes”, you could be in for a nasty surprise.