The COVID-19 pandemic, national lockdown, and intermittent prohibition have resulted in drastic changes to the way South Africans are buying alcohol.
Before the advent of COVID-19, many South Africans visited brick-and-mortar bottle stores when buying liquor, but this quickly changed after the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the country.
After the spread of the virus began to accelerate, the South African government declared a state of emergency, under which it implemented a hard lockdown, restricting movement and banning the sale of alcohol entirely.
In the following months, restrictions were slowly eased and the sale of alcohol was eventually allowed again – but only from Monday to Thursday.
This time, however, social distancing was a far greater consideration amongst South Africans, and the limited window to buy liquor led to a higher probability of interpersonal interaction and therefore infection.
As a result, many South Africans began to order from online liquor stores instead.
In line with general trends in ecommerce during the lockdown period, alcohol sales on online platforms skyrocketed.
Online liquor retailer CyberCellar previously told MyBroadband that immediately after President Ramaphosa announced that the country would move to level 3 lockdown, it saw a significant spike in traffic on its online platform.
The initial move to level 3 lockdown saw the sale and delivery of alcohol being allowed from Monday to Thursday.
Instead of queuing outside of liquor stores, South Africans were shopping online for their booze.
According to online stores which sell alcohol products, this trend is expected to continue after the sale of alcohol is unbanned once again and the pandemic has run its course.
MyBroadband spoke to Massmart (Makro’s parent company), OneDayOnly, and CyberCellar about how the way South Africans buy alcohol has changed since the lockdown.
Massmart told MyBroadband that it had seen very high demand for alcohol after the ban was first lifted.
“Our primary priority was to work more closely with suppliers to ensure that we had sufficient supply to meet demand, a process that we started planning approximately three weeks prior to the lifting of the prohibition,” Massmart said.
“The result was that we were able to meet demand responsibly and safely throughout the sales period.”
“At Massmart, and particularly Makro, we have generally had a robust online base of online liquor customers, most notably for wine and higher-end spirits,” it said.
The company hopes many of these new customers will continue to purchase online after the pandemic has died down, but it said it was too early to tell how sticky COVID-19 online sales would be in a post-COVID-19 environment.
For the foreseeable future, however, it seems that many more South Africans will be ordering their alcohol online.
“Interestingly, the highest proportion of online orders were click-and-collect, with most customers continuing to shop in our stores on collection day,” Massmart said.
The company added that while it supports the need to prioritise the health care needs of South Africa under COVID-19, it is of the opinion that the sale of both liquor and tobacco products has become highly politicised and that a number of related decisions have been disingenuous.
David Cope, director of Publik – the company which owns CyberCellar – told MyBroadband that they had seen a significant increase in online alcohol sales when this was permitted under the national lockdown.
“There was definitely a big upswing in both sales overall and first-time customers, many of whom returned again within the window of alcohol sales,” Cope said.
He added that CyberCellar was prepared for this, however.
“We’ve been fortunate with timing as we were already adding resources on the fulfilment side as well as our ecommerce team to grow our online capacity.”
Looking forward, Cope added that the restrictions of the lockdown have resulted in South Africans realising the value of buying alcohol from online stores.
“The past few months have definitely helped more consumers see the value in buying their drinks online, with free and quick delivery making it an easy alternative to visiting retailers.”
Cope added that CyberCellar faces most of the same challenges that physical retailers face when selling alcohol online, as well as the added customer service requirements and delivery operations required to service a large national customer base.
When it comes to the retailer’s position on South Africa’s alcohol ban, Cope said he doubts prohibition will be effective.
“I think if prohibition didn’t work 100 years ago then anyone thinking it will work today is fooling themselves.”
OneDayOnly told MyBroadband that when the sale of alcohol was allowed during the lockdown period, it saw an impressive increase in sales.
“We saw an increase of 500% in alcohol sales (comparative to a normal month),” it said. “It was very clear that people were purchasing more alcohol online than before – both to avoid retail outlets as well as to stock up!”
The retailer had to scale its warehouse operations and its couriers’ involvement to meet this demand.
OneDayOnly said it absolutely expects that more South Africans will buy alcohol online after the lockdown and the pandemic.
“The benefits of purchasing alcohol (and everything else) online has definitely been highlighted under lockdown: you can avoid leaving your home and standing in queues by purchasing online,” it said.
“With contactless delivery you don’t have to come close to the courier when receiving your order, making online the best and most convenient way to shop.”
“With very little downsides to online shopping (discounts are also far more prevalent online as opposed to in-store sales), we fully expect to see more South African shopping online post lockdown,” the retailer said.
OneDayOnly said a unique challenge faced by online liquor retailers is the fragility of the bottles, and the subsequent possibility of breakages in delivery.
Concerning the national ban on the sale of alcohol, OneDayOnly said it empathises with those that are hardest-hit by the prohibition.
“While we understand and fully support the intentions behind the new government regulations, we feel for our suppliers and the knock-on effects for themselves and the industry as a whole,” the retailer said.
“At OneDayOnly we are selling with deferred delivery, ensuring we can continue to support those smaller wine farms and other outlets that have been hit hardest by the lockdown.”
“Customers can place orders, but delivery will only take place when the announcement is made that the current ban has been lifted,” it said.