Sunday Times STLive By Tina Weavind, 2012-04-01

Sold on online shopping

Going online is more convenient than conventional banking for you and, if you're not careful, criminals. Pic: MARIANNE PRETORIUS. © Sunday Times.

The weekly family shop is so much less aggravating and dangerous to the health of oneself and others when carried out over a computer keyboard, writes Tina Weavind

Other than crawling the gauntlet along Johannesburg's William Nicol Highway twice a day, few things in my life are as stupefying as grocery shopping. Once a week - usually on a Saturday - I have to jostle for food and household necessities with hundreds of other hunter-gatherers. The children like to come along, which confounds any attempt at efficiency, and their trolley racing threatens the lives of the aged and infirm.

There are options, of course, but none I'd ever seriously considered. Eating only in restaurants, for example, just wouldn't fly on my salary and I don't know anyone who would agree to shop for me unless I had a life-threatening disease. Shopping online has always been an option. But the few times I'd gone onto potential websites I was underwhelmed by the interface and the dearth of user friendliness, and in the end it just seemed easier to take to the aisles.

Then an excursion at the weekend inspired me to try again. The jams in the emaciated aisles launched several incidents of trolley rage, ratchetted up significantly by the credit card payment system being offline.

So on Monday I launched my study into the benefits of online shopping, limited as it is to Woolworths and Pick n Pay. Thrupps in Illovo has been delivering to Johannesburg's residents for 115 years, but its range is limited and its prices limiting.

I register at Woolies first, and before I've placed my order I get an e-mail confirmation telling me they know who I am. Then they spoil it moments later by trying to sell me insurance and suggesting I might win a R10000 shopping spree if I take up the offer. I take a while to work out the website, but once I do it's fairly straightforward with clear pictures of each item, its price and weight. I need salad items at home, and I figure this will be a good test of its ability to deliver fresh food. I choose lettuce, tomatoes, a cucumber, biscuits and a few other things. Then I go to the virtual checkout and enter my credit card details to pay R188. Moments later I get an e-mail confirming that I have shopped, listing what I've bought, and telling me my goods will be at my office the next day.

The next morning, my phone pings with an SMS to say my payment to Woolworths has gone off. A little later I get a call from reception and everything I have ordered is there, in a bag. Delivery is free, and the Woolworths employee tells me this is the case if delivery is close to the store the goods have come from or if some items are out of stock. They've come from Rivonia, which seems a bit odd as my office in Rosebank is within an easy walk of a big store. But I'm thrilled. It feels like Christmas, only I don't know who to thank.

At the same time I'm trying out Woolworths I also try out Pick n Pay's online shopping experience. Once I've filled in the registration forms on Monday morning, I get an e-mail telling me it could take up to 72 hours for them to verify if they can deliver to my address. Soon afterwards I get another telling me this verification is pending. The registration confirmation comes through on Tuesday, an hour after Woolies delivered.

I go onto the Pick n Pay site again on Tuesday and, as with the Woolworths site, I fiddle around a bit until I've got the hang of how to negotiate it. This done, I order some ice tea and laundry items, kitchen sponges and detergents. The bill is R255.93 and there's a delivery fee of R60, totalling R315.93. I put in my credit card details and pay.

The next day, my phone pings and I get an SMS saying R278.70 has been paid to Pick n Pay. That morning I get an e-mail to say the goods have been picked up and are on their way to me. At 2pm I get a call from reception to say my shopping has arrived. The price differential is because the dish-washing sponges I wanted were out of stock and have been replaced with five no-name bath sponges. The oven cleaner I wanted is also out of stock and has been replaced with nothing.

The frequency of out-of-stock goods is also a complaint I get from a quick Facebook poll. But some of my friends say that the convenience factor of not having to spend an hour or so shopping is worth not getting everything you've ordered. It's also cheaper because you aren't as likely to fall into the chocolate-coated customer traps carefully positioned at the tills.

There are a few drawbacks. Not choosing your own items means you don't get to check the "best before" date, and you leave the freshness of your food up to the stock picker. Another problem is having to navigate the websites, but that's likely to get quicker as one gets to know the site. You also need to factor in the time delay: you generally only get your shopping the next day. You might be forced to pop in to a real store now and again. The problem, though, is where items are out of stock and an "appropriate" alternative is provided. But these are things I'll overlook for a while. Right now, I'm sold on online shopping.

Travel a big hit among shoppers

Online shopping in South Africa is increasing at a rate of 30% a year, according to Arthur Goldstuck of World Wide Worx. Shopping for books and music from Kalahari.com and Amazon.com has become standard practice for many South Africans, and traditional stores like Exclusive Books have gone online.

SA companies bidorbuy. co.za and netflorist.co.za are also growing at a cracking speed, but the fastest-growing online industry, according to Goldstuck, is travel.

Grocery shopping is fairly flat by comparison. Much of this is due to logistics. Stock-picking and delivery are core to a business like Amazon.com, but it's not to, say, Woolworths, which collects customer details and orders centrally, but then hands over the information to stores near the delivery point.

The goods then have to be found, taken off the shelves and bagged, and then driven to the customer. The efficiencies aren't there, and mistakes are made. - Tina Weavind