Most people want to try clothes before paying for them. Most times, we want to feel the texture and the fabric. Those elements of feel are yet to be solved by advancements in technology. For all the progress we have seen in haptics technology, the sense of touch has not been effectively digitized at scale to support ecommerce business.
So, you like the shirt, but you are not sure if that shirt will look good on you. On your smartphone, it is a piece of creativity. But you need to ratify it before you hit that BUY button.
Today, the return policy in the African ecommerce sector continues to evolve. In short, in Africa, we do not have a customer-friendly return policy, unlike developed markets like U.S. and U.K. where you can return clothes with ease. So the risk is that once you have paid for that item and the ecommerce company ships it, the likelihood that it is yours is there. Returning it will cost you money and that is never a good feeling, to waste money mindlessly. The only defense is to buy clothes you are sure that you will keep.
Fixing The Challenge
So what can the African ecommerce companies do to scale the fashion category of their businesses? I suggest the following to help them sell more clothes, shoes etc:
- Open physical “stores” in big cities where shoppers can come and try clothes, shoes, etc but they cannot buy those specific items. Once they have tried and like the item, they can move to a section of the shop, using laptops there, and order the item. Of course, they can also order from their smartphones or go home and do same. The goal is to make it possible for people to overcome that inertia associated with buying clothing online without first trying it. You want to experience the physical quality despite the amazing digital virtualization you are seeing online, before you buy.
- The ecommerce companies can focus on highly exclusive fashion products. Because you will not want to be a showroom where people try items, only to shop from your competitor’s site, you must find a way to have exclusivity on the items for this to make sense. That differentiation is strategic and that will help you seed a relationship with customers. They like the brands, they can try the products and they can only buy from you in that locality.
- Work via coopetition if possible. There is nothing that says the local ecommerce companies cannot partner and have an independent firm, funded through a consortium, to drive the showroom strategy. This showroom model will go beyond clothing to kitchenware where people still like to feel, see or touch the items before they buy online. For the big ecommerce firms like Jumia and Konga, they can execute this model without any help. But for the smaller Nigerian ecommerce companies, they may need to come together and work on business models like this one.
Ecommerce is the future platform for commerce. But it will take long for people to feel very comfortable buying some major items online, in Africa, without first feeling, seeing or trying them. Opening showrooms for customers to try or see some items, even though they cannot buy the specific items they tried or seen, will be catalytic for the ecommerce industry.
The ecommerce companies will not carry much inventory and will be operated as lean businesses with very small stores since they are not selling anything in the physical stores. This can also help the ecommerce companies to figure out and understand what customers want, by tracking the items they are trying more. Possibly, the insights gathered can be used to improve the digital strategy which will be retooled to effectively align with market trajectory, driven by customer tastes, as captured in the physical store.