Published in Jul-Aug 2021
Although the pandemic has affected everyone, the expat community can arguably be said to truly relate to the hardest part of being away from loved ones due to the never-ending travel restrictions. Such emotional episodes swell during festive seasons, such as Eid, when you even miss the little acts and celebratory ‘only observed in Pakistan’ vibes. Going through a similar instance this Ramzan, helpless with the physical void and missing my elderly parents terribly, I decided to repeat the annual ritual of Eid shopping for them, but this time virtually, through an online store run by one of Pakistan’s big names in the fashion world.
My journey through the online shop took less than half an hour as I directly jumped to the new collections area, and much to my delight it was a seamless experience! In fact, I am not exaggerating when I say that it was a much better experience than bricks and mortar retail, as I reviewed all the options in less than half the time. This ability to review everything with a click facilitates and expedites customer decision-making, which is usually time-consuming. Needless to say, I quickly made the purchases as all my requirements were smoothly addressed followed by a customised order confirmation email containing the relevant details of my purchase. However, my joy did not last long and was overtaken by disappointment when I finally experienced the ‘dark’ side of online shopping.
For starters, there was radio silence for almost a week after I placed the order, and contrary to the committed delivery date, the tracking order field showed it had yet to be dispatched. When the silence continued beyond the delivery timelines and there was no response to my follow-ups, I started looking for the most efficient way to gain visibility on the order status. I dialled in customer services IVR, where the flow options seemed to have been designed in the Stone Ages. After a long wait, I got through to an agent and I was informed that the reason for the delay was an incomplete order due to the fact that some of the items were out of stock and I should therefore select a different item as a replacement as they did not have a refund policy. I was angry. What fuelled my anger further was the fact that while having this conversation with the agent, I opened the website to look for replacements and saw the same items I had ordered shown as ‘in stock’. Nevertheless, I selected another item as a replacement only to be informed that it too was out of stock. Additionally, the agent refused to confirm the delivery timeline, arguing that the brand cannot be held responsible for third party delays, using a tone one would not want to hear as a frustrated customer. Eventually, I had to resort to the traditional way of asking an acquaintance who worked for the brand in question to help resolve my case on a priority basis. This example serves to illustrate the consequences of poorly integrated back-end business processes behind otherwise reputable offline retail brands.
Looking at the larger context, in Pakistan, fashion is one of the largest e-commerce categories, accounting for more than half of the market size and the barriers to entry are next to none. In fact, the local e-commerce space in Pakistan is just warming up; a large population, a burgeoning middle class and increasing internet adoption are all favouring this space. In this context, what is important to underline is that at this defining stage, brands cannot afford to have inferior purchasing experiences. The year of the great lockdown changed consumer behaviour overnight. Digital adoption exploded and brands with established online businesses benefited while the others struggled; many retail led brands embraced digital reactively after sensing the looming extinction of the traditional walk-in bricks and mortar format.
Yet, moving online is easier said than done, as e-commerce demands that brands think beyond selling their core offering. Any brand’s appeal is as good as its end-to-end purchase experience. A highly reputed brand delivered in a poor selling environment is a recipe for disaster for any future brand equity. The end goal should be the selling experience and this means understanding both the context and the buyer’s personality and the fact that online success happens when technology, design and customer-centric back-end processes come together to deliver a digital experience that hits the mark. Brands should therefore be mindful of this and embrace ownership of all possible customer journey scenarios (new buy, existing buy, return, reorder, replace, follow up). A good website design, multi-channel customer support, relevant offerings and intuitive navigation are only the baseline expectations in the world of online shopping. By definition, digital means having real-time, integrated backend processes – including the supply chain. Other considerations include (in addition to the usual KYC for personalised interaction) seamless navigation. Poor data and catalogue management, complicated returns’ policies, inadequate product information and restrictive payment options are minor but irritating triggers from a customer point of view. Interestingly, AI is now offering diverse possibilities in online retail aimed at helping brands deliver an individually tailored journey; for example, recommending products and providing a personalised user experience by analysing clicks, shopping baskets, purchasing history and search query, can deliver relevant suggestions for additional purchases.
Pakistan is lucky to have the baseline fundamentals required for a seamless retail experience, if backed by the right regulatory support and enabling environment. To contextualise this optimism, we are a young country with 100 million plus Pakistanis under the age of 25 and mobile is the dominant form of digital connectivity with over 25% of internet users. The objective therefore should be to convert this low hanging fruit and increase internet usage among the remaining 55% mobile phone users. Pakistani start-ups are raising the funding bar by attracting foreign VCs and according to a recent MAGNiTT MENA Report, Pakistan’s start-ups and investors are capitalising on opportunities in e-commerce. In Q1 of 2021, e-commerce start-ups in Pakistan did not only close the highest number of deals, they also raised the largest share in funding (36%); Bazaar Technologies, a B2B FMCG marketplace, were the recipients of the largest investment worth $6.5 million. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s e-commerce space has a long way to go. The 2020 UNCTAD B2C E-Commerce Index, which measures an economy’s ability to support online shopping, ranks Pakistan 116 out of 152 countries, with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka achieving better rankings. Bangladesh’s e-commerce market size is expected to reach three billion dollars in the next two years, registering a 50% annual growth rate, whereas according to the National eCommerce Council (NeCC) Pakistan’s e-commerce market size grew by 35% in the first quarter of the previous fiscal year.
In order to capitalise on the opportunities offered by e-commerce local brands need to improve their online retail performance by analysing, testing and addressing the possible pain points in the customer journey. This will provide valuable insights for improving the customer experience over the long term. Lastly, brands should never stop evolving. Technology, trends and customer tastes will change and so must the business.
Khurram Mahboob works for a blue chip telecom company in the GCC region. email@example.com