Retail in South Africa: 77% of consumers prefer online shopping to avoid crowds in-store

Published on 2020/12/02 by Sonia Navarrete

The retail industry in South Africa began to feel the pressure to meet profitability long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores. The country was already in a recession, consumer spending was declining due to growing levels of unemployment and moving to an eCommerce model.

retail south africa

With one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates on the continent, the pandemic has raged war on the economy with GDP dropping even further 2020. The country’s unemployment rate is at an all-time high rising to 30.8% in the third quarter of 2020 compared to 23.3% in 2019.

In addition, the retail industry in South Africa is also facing a change in shoppers’ behaviour due to social distancing and staying safe at home. These variables have no doubt placed an enormous burden on retail businesses. They are needing to take an adapt-or-die approach to their survival.

To help brands better understand the trends at play, we asked over 1,000 consumers how the pandemic is changing the way they shop. The results show interesting insights. For example, how respondents discover new online shopping sites, and 51% of them using Social Media to purchase. (*see below for the full survey methodology).

Before the pandemic, retail businesses in South Africa were taking a slow and steady approach to digital transformation, but this has been accelerated dramatically as the pandemic rages across the globe forcing people to adapt to new ways of living.

In this article, we will reveal shoppers’ preferences to help brands consider their online offering and adjust if necessary, in order to retain or boost sales.

Offering better eCommerce shopper experiences can set businesses apart from intensifying competition. One of the best indicators for shopper experience, is monitoring abandoned basket rates. It creates awareness of minor disruptions to their eCommerce experience that is resulting in them disengaging from and trying another site.

Food, drinks and fashion are the items most purchased online by South African consumers

It might sound obvious, but one of the first steps to becoming a successful retailer is knowing what your customers want to buy. The results of the research reveal that when looking at items that buyers are interested in purchasing online, there is an almost even split across consumable goods with fashion, food and beverages leading by a small margin.

top products bought online in south africa

When it comes to the world of online retail, it’s not as simple as knowing what products to stock – you also need to know how customers prefer to interact with eCommerce platforms. Based off insights into the platforms consumers make use of when shopping online, the results suggest that it is critical merchants have multichannel functionality, with an even split across both desktops (PCs and laptops – 51%) and mobile devices (tablets and smartphones – 49%) that consumers make use of.

The results of the surveys show that mobile browser dominated the mobile shopping experience at 28% with a further breakdown as follows:

most used devices used in zA for online shopping

Fulfilment options are another important factor when it comes to attracting, converting and retaining customers. This is particularly relevant now when many people feel anxious about visiting public spaces.

Sixty percent of respondents said that they enlist the delivery option at least 1-2 times per week when shopping. The main reason, from 77% of respondents is to avoid contact with crowds in-store.

Many, about 49% said they like the convenience of online shopping and delivery as it saves time and hassle of having to do this physically. It is likely we’ll see this trend continue post-pandemic.

One in five people did not use online delivery at all before COVID-19.

It is also critical to understand the frequency of online shopping, with a majority (55%) preferring to do this once to twice a week. This is followed by 22% who shop 3-5% a week and only 17% who said they did not use this method of shopping at all.

72% of South African shoppers prefer goods delivered to avoid contact with crowds in-store

Apart from the convenience and time saved, COVID-19 is clearly a factor. 72% stating they prefer to either pick up or have items delivered in a manner that allows them to avoid contact with crowds in-store.

retail in south africa reasons for in-store delivery

While it appears, the pandemic has been a factor in motivating some people to use in-store or pick-up point delivery for the first time, the data suggests most will continue to do so after the pandemic is over. When asked about the likelihood of this occurring, 34% responded “highly likely” and 50% “likely”.

Identifying shopper pain points

Beyond general preferences relating to device and fulfilment options, there are a range of issues that are highly likely to turn consumers off a brand. Effective inventory management should be a priority for businesses, as respondents rank “out of stock products” as their top pain point (61%).

challenges for users in south africa retail

Of course, some issues are outside of the merchant’s control. Over six in 10 shoppers report that the inability to touch, feel or test products is a major issue for them when using eCommerce services. Implementing effective returns and refunds processes, however, should go some way to addressing this.

In addition, the results suggest that the accuracy and volume of the product information on-site are especially important. Over half of the respondents complained about the quality of products not being as described. Another  50% had encountered what they felt was misleading product photography and descriptions.

Retail in South Africa: 58% of shoppers are keen to try technologies like VR/AR

When asked what they would like to see improved, it appears that investment in innovative next-generation functionality is something the South African consumer love the idea of.  58% are keen to try new emerging technologies such as VR and AR, or virtual changing rooms, with only 6% saying adding this option would have a detrimental effect on their shopping experience.

The one thing most shoppers want to see is a greater focus on the basics, such as webpage loading speed, real-time stock checking or a smoother checkout experience. 81% said this would have a positive effect, 17% neutral and only 2% negative.

57% of people identified delayed or slow delivery as a challenge relating to eCommerce. And the research also found some circumstances in which respondents were prepared to wait. Over half (69%) confirmed they would be happy to wait longer for their orders if it was guaranteed products were both sourced and delivered sustainably.

Online retailers should refocus their attention on improving the core features and functionality that users expect as standard. With trends pointing towards fast adaptation of emerging technologies as well as a growing commitment to sustainability, they must be prepared to adapt too.

As the eCommerce space becomes increasingly crowded, it may be the crucial element that differentiates them from the competition.  It can also mean meeting the changing needs of their market in these new and unprecedented times.

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*Data for the GetApp SA Customer Experience Survey was collected in October 2020 from an online survey of 1,000 respondents that live in South Africa.

The survey data used for this article comes from 1,006 participants who qualified to answer.  The information in this article corresponds to the average of all surveyed participants.

The criteria for participants is consumers who have made an online purchase in the last 6 – 12 months. 


This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.


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