Fear of catching Corona drives more South Africans to shop online

E-commerce is fast becoming the 'new normal', writes Sanet Oberholzer

19 July 2020 - 00:00 By Sanet Oberholzer
People are wary about running unnecessary errands during the pandemic, which is driving online sales.
People are wary about running unnecessary errands during the pandemic, which is driving online sales.
Image: 123RF/Dmitry Naumov

Several weeks into SA's lockdown I saw a meme I found amusing — something along the lines of "I can single-handedly save the economy through my online shopping habits". It reminded me to check the delivery dates for the many orders I'd placed online.

Now, as I scan my bank statement, I'm less amused: I've never spent this much money on online shopping before.

Overcome with the realisation that I have an e-shopping problem, I scroll through my social media pages and glimpse something pretty in an online ad strategically tailored to my recent Google searches — as if the internet gods can look into my soul and know what I find appealing.

There are lots of online shopping memes that attest to this problem. I think back to the first visit from the Takealot truck (filled with yoga mats, pressure cookers and all manner of lockdown luxuries) after online trading was permitted again in May, and realise I'm not the exception.

According to a report by Nielsen, only 1%-2% of the 58% of South Africans with internet access used online shopping platforms to regularly buy groceries pre-Covid, and 8%-10% used it to make purchases in the past year. Now, given our current reality, 37% of South Africans are shopping more online.

"Customers had been confined to their homes for weeks, unable to go out and spend disposable income in their usual ways, unable to order in meals and motivated to find new ways to use their spare time. For people around the world that meant a chance to cook more at home, learn new food preparation skills and shop more online," says Lauren Seddon, head of marketing at Yuppiechef.

Being able to shop from your couch, at whatever time suits you, and having it delivered directly to you, is a convenient and low-risk way of getting what you need
Lauren Seddon, Yuppiechef

The products people order from platforms like Yuppiechef are telling: vacuum cleaners, coffee machines, stand mixers, pasta machines. Goods that either make home life easier or help people learn new skills in the kitchen.

Without the option to buy your favourite treats from a restaurant or takeaway joint — heaven forbid you wanted to buy a rotisserie chicken — Seddon says the motivation to replicate delicious snacks and meals has also led to an increase in grocery sales.

Liz Hillock, head of online for Woolworths, says there was increased demand on its online shopping platform even before lockdown began. "People were stockpiling in the beginning but as we've gone through lockdown, they're definitely opting to shop more online. We've had triple business growth."

But more than simply shopping online, she says, customers are moving online in a mobile way. "The number of app users has doubled — tripled even."

There's no doubt that people are wary about running unnecessary errands. As Seddon says, "Being able to shop from your couch, at whatever time suits you, and having it delivered directly to you, is a convenient and low-risk way of getting what you need."

Hillock says many retailers have had a good online service offering for a while but South Africans were trapped in a "mall culture".

"E-commerce has always been quite nascent in South Africa but I think now people are trying it and realising how convenient the service actually is."

And now that some people have experienced online shopping for the first time, they might be prone to repeat the experience. "There might be a levelling between online and in-store shopping," says Hillock, "but the current situation is definitely ushering in a new normal."