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Shopping online via social media

Be where your customers are. That is the most important rule in the world of commerce. But what if the customers are increasingly flowing from the physical world into the online world? Will the traders follow them there? What happens to those who do not?

The amount of time Ethiopians spend on social media has risen significantly within the past few years. With people largely dependent on mobile phones and the internet, retailers are increasingly trying to meet them where they are: the social media.

After all, what better idea than to combine the platforms where people already spend a lot of their time chatting with friends, getting news, sharing thoughts, browsing through images and exchanging recommendations with the opportunity to buy things.

When Bereket Desta, 46, wanted to buy a special gadget for his car, he searched for it all over the city, but to no avail. “It is a rare item and I searched for it for four months.” He said that through recommendations, he was able to discover Black Enterprise, a social media shop.

“I found out that I can order any item, for a reasonable price,” he continued, “I like it because of the novelty pitch, because at some point, almost all of us wanted a specific item that can only be found abroad but couldn’t access it here.”

He said that he has started following similar speciality shops on social media and thinks such sellers like Black Enterprise have created a market for themselves, riding on the exclusivity factor.

Founded a year and a half ago, Black Enterprise is already one of the most popular shops of its kind, having earned the reach thousands of members on Telegram (the application) alone. And the owner attributes its success to social media; it has flourished because of the internet and owes its business to it.

Akel Asdenaki, 23, owner says he started his business after coming home from China. “There, I bought everything online, through websites and then sent them here to be sold. Everything about the trade, importing, and payment, I learnt from it.” After coming back home, he tried selling his stock from place to place, in search of better deals. “Then I started selling them to the people I knew, I started posting several items on my Facebook page, eventually expanding to Viber and WhatsApp.”

“The difference is,” he says, “unlike in China, Websites are not that popular here. People here preferred Facebook. ‘Why?’ because almost everyone had a Facebook account and browsing through Facebook was easier and more enjoyable.”

Although the idea of shopping online took some time to catch on, most modern shoppers have finally embraced Facebook, Telegram, Instagram and other rising social networks for their retail needs.

Already ahead of the social shopping game are Telegram users. The app is becoming a central hub for online shoppers and merchants. Comparisons to WhatsApp have been drawn, particularly in light of some of its features and enhanced messaging services, but most users agree that no app in popular usage (in Ethiopia) comes close to Telegram’s universal quality.

They believe Telegram is the quickest and shortest way to reach their prospects wherever they are, also allowing them to receive immediate feedbacks and conduct surveys.

After Telegram grew in popularity, Akele started using it through the persuasion of his brother, Matios Asdenaki, 20.

The brothers first thought of buying an already existing Telegram group (a popular group), but later weighed against it because even though they had to start from scratch, they can start it for free. At the present, Matios runs the second largest group in Addis, which has more than 18,000 members. And when Akele created another channel with around 2,200 people, the duo have reach to more than 20,000 people (not including their members in Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp).

Now, in order to manage such a huge clientele, the brothers have opened what they call an “order house” at Mintewab Building, Bole. The order house, which has apparels and gadgets on display, serves as an outlet (a distribution spot) where customers can pay and receive their orders. “For now, we only offer personalized delivery for those who buy big or multiple items because delivering small items here and there across the city has left us scattered and has proved to be time consuming. ”

Another shop owner who believes the need for physical presence is Brikti Abate, owner of Brikti Fashion. She says she started the business after selling several items on a public sell-and-buy platform and getting the taste for it. She sold items on social media before finally deciding to supplement her business and open a store at Berhane Adere Building, Bole.

“A lot of Ethiopians have joined the realm of e-commerce, but some still appreciate the benefits of physical shops like being able to try on a cloth before deciding to buy it” Berkti said.

“Sometimes it can become necessary, consumers need to know you are running a legit business, and that can be achieved through a physical presence.”

In online shopping, this proof can be obtained in the forms of ‘like’ or ‘follow’ buttons. The amount of followers, views and likes are among effective tools to affect others’ perception about the sellers.

Sellers like Brikti who have just 1,000 members in their Telegram channels are not striving just for numbers; they are after targeted audiences who have a high and instant intention to purchase.

These shops have brought the shopping experience into social media, allowing consumers to search items and compare prices from multiple stores at once, from the comfort of their homes.

Rather than having to travel from store to store, shoppers can simply navigate from one channel (group) to the next using their phones. They usually find offers that are cheaper than physical stores because online shops are not subjected to rent and tax, allowing consumers to save money, time and energy.

Some groups/channels also serve as a trading platform for their members. “If a person wants to buy, let’s say an iPhone 6” says Matios, “he or she simply types ‘I want an iPhone6, in x color, in x condition, within x price range. Depending on the item, at least three- four people will respond, so he/she can compare the offers and make the best selection.”

While physical stores are not dead, the market suggests that they will likely struggle to keep up with customer satisfaction, now that consumers have the option to shop on mobile phones and online.

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