Ecommerce executives continue to gain support in their quest to allow unrestricted ecommerce activity to take place.
Most countries internationally allow unfettered ecommerce during their COVID-19 lockdowns, because of the contactless nature of the industry.
The inverse has happened in South Africa, despite ecommerce being punted as a way to limit the impact of the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa.
Online shops are only allowed to sell the products which brick-and-mortar shops are allowed to sell, which severely impacted their operations.
The reason for this decision, which many people feel is ill-advised and counter-productive, is “fairness”.
Minister for Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel said that ecommerce will continue to operate under restrictions due to concerns over fair competition.
“If we open up any one category, let’s say ecommerce, unavoidably there’s enormous pressure to do the same for physical stores,” Patel stated.
The fairness argument was not well-received among ecommerce executives and consumers looking to buy products online.
“Minister Patel started to use arguments around what is fair and fair competition. There is nothing about this lockdown which is fair,” said Yuppiechef co-founder Andrew Smith.
“Using an argument like that is similar to saying we should ban Netflix because it is not fair on DVD stores which are closed.”
Ecommerce a great tool during lockdown
Smith said other countries have embraced ecommerce as a safe way to get a wide range of goods to people.
“There is a small team which works in the warehouse, which is contained. There is also no contact made with customers and delivery can be done in a very safe way,” he explained.
Smith said unrestricted ecommerce should be allowed, where people can order whatever they want online.
This view is shared by Takealot CEO Kim Reid, who said social distancing is built into ecommerce.
“With a few simple delivery protocols, ecommerce allows for a very hygienic way of shopping,” Reid said.
Another benefit of ecommerce, Reid said, is that the need to make a distinction between essential goods and non-essential goods goes away.
Since there is no need to discourage people from lingering in physical stores for too long, online shops can and should be allowed to sell their whole inventory.
OneDayOnly director Laurian Venter echoed these views, saying stopping an industry that can benefit South Africans during the lockdown does not make sense.
“Ecommerce is used worldwide as part of the solution to this terrible pandemic,” said Venter.
“Safe deliveries to your front door are a great way to curb the spread of this disease and serve the people of South Africa,” she said.
Catastrophic impact on online businesses
Smith said the impact of the lockdown on online businesses, where your income goes to zero within days, is catastrophic.
Many online shops were able to pivot into selling essential goods very quickly, which helped to mitigate the impact, but the losses were still significant.
Reid said they expect the lockdown to cost Takealot, which also owns clothing store Superbalist and Mr D Food, around R350 million.
While big online stores with strong balance sheets will survive the prolonged lockdown, smaller stores do not have those resources.
An early casualty was Rebel Tech, one of South Africa’s specialist computer hardware retailers, which announced that it is closing down.
Rebel Tech founder Rune Ravnsborg said the COVID-19 situation and subsequent challenges were too much for Rebel Tech to overcome.