SA retail digitisation fast-tracked by pandemic, riots

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Anujeet Verma, regional head for sales in South Africa and MEA, Freshworks.
Anujeet Verma, regional head for sales in South Africa and MEA, Freshworks.

Major South African retailers have been undergoing digital transformation for some years, but the pandemic and recent riots fast-tracked certain initiatives.

This emerged during a roundtable on future-proofing the retail and e-commerce tech stack, hosted by Freshworks in partnership with ITWeb this week.

South African e-commerce and retail stakeholders participating in the roundtable said the pandemic had put pressure on traditional retailers to quickly improve their online shopping and customer service capabilities, with the riots increasing demand even further. Those who suffered severe losses due to the riots could have had to delay some of their planned digital initiatives, however.

Nirvani Dhevcharran, infotec infrastructure executive at TFG, said the recent riots had brought immediate challenges, such as a flood of queries from layby customers whose purchases were lost when stores burnt down. At the same time, the group was moving to fast track planned information technology upgrades at stores that were burned and looted. 

It comes down to how seamless you are making the process for your customers.

Anujeet Verma, Freshworks.

“We have to balance these roll-outs and the need to train staff on the new technology, with the need to get stores trading again as fast as possible,” she said. “TFG committed to digital transformation some time ago, with the recruitment of IT industry ‘heavy hitters’ and the creation of TFG Labs to drive our omnichannel strategy,” she added.

Melvin Kaabwe, digital manager of Freshworks customer Van Schaik Bookstore, said his organisation already had good digital communication channels in place with customers and third party service providers such as courier companies, which stood it in good stead during the riots. “Some courier vans were targeted and looted, so we needed to be in constant contact with customers about orders that went missing as a result,” he noted. 

 Kaabwe said that because Van Schaik specialises in academic text books for students, delayed deliveries could impact students’ assignments and exams, so there had to be tight integration with courier partners and Pargo parcel drop off partners. In addition, the company was cognisant of the fact that many of its customers prefer to communicate via social media channels, so it was now looking to integrate social media channels into its Freshdesk support solution.

Anujeet Verma, regional head for sales in South Africa and MEA at Freshworks, said recent events had driven organisations to seek faster digital transformation, with operational excellence and customer experience as their top priorities. “It is becoming all about agility and more organisations are moving to the cloud for flexibility and scalability, with 65% of customer service leaders worldwide embracing remote or hybrid models,” he said. He noted that research showed that during 2020, 63% of customer service leaders saw a rise in customer expectations, and 56% have increased their budgets to address this.

Verma advised retailers who were balancing budget and the need to address operational excellence and CX to prioritise their key objectives. He said they should not waste time implementing software systems in silos, and should instead take the platform approach. “Always make sure you are providing a smooth checkout for customers, ensure data is protected, have clear refund and return policies in place, and use AI-enabled bots to help customers who are having an issue with navigation, payment or product information. It comes down to how seamless you are making the process for your customers,” he said.

Verma added that Freshworks had recently signed up the Clicks Group as a customer, and also counts Assupol and Multichoice among its local clients.

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