Stirring up e-commerce in South Africa

One of South Africa’s top e-commerce companies and most-loved brands continues to set the standard for online businesses as recognised by uAfrica’s eCommerce Awards. Investec’s blog recently featured an interview with Andrew Smith, co-founder and CEO of Yuppiechef, where he shares his views on how to forge ahead and be remarkable when it comes to delivering online.

What is your take on the South African e-commerce landscape?

E-commerce in South Africa is growing fast and certainly getting a lot more attention than it did a few years ago but it is still a tiny fraction of all retail – around 1% of South Africa’s R500bn (US$38bn) total. For the last two decades, e-commerce was mostly about the pure-play pioneers such as Kalahari and Netflorist, and more recently Takealot, Zando and ourselves. The exciting movement now is by the traditional retailers like Woolworths who are starting to invest properly in their omni-channel offerings.

What are the key pillars for success in the e-commerce space?

South Africans are using Facebook, Google and Instagram every day and experiencing the very best technology and user interfaces in the world. Local retailers have to realise that they are not just competing against their local competitors, but also the most cutting edge, slickest and fastest websites and apps that exist globally. I am not sure that many South African entrants into e-commerce fully grasp this with the result that they under-invest in their website experience.

The second area of under-investment – or simply a lack of awareness – is how important a call centre is. Other than knowledge of products, online customer service agents have to be experts on the website process, multiple payment flows, out of stock and return issues and much more.

Thirdly, speed and accuracy of fulfilment is an expensive and difficult thing to get right. About 10 years ago, when a customer bought online they were delighted if it arrived at all. Today customers demand next-day delivery (and hope for same-day), they expect you to have stock and they expect a seamless returns process.

Customer service is one of your key differentiators – what has been your secret to success and how do you maintain it as your business grows?

Shane Dryden and I started Yuppiechef from my lounge and because we were the ones answering the phone and replying to emails, we treated customers as we expected to be treated.

We refer to the culture-permission-tool framework. When we add team members we look for people who genuinely care (to support our culture); we give them the budget and freedom to serve our customers as we have been doing (i.e. the permission to do what they can to keep our customers happy) and we develop systems and technologies (the tools) to enable them to do this efficiently.

Can you briefly explain your initial approach to marketing and how this has evolved over the years?

In the early days, we had no money to spend on marketing and so we focused on three areas namely online advertising with a proven return on investment, generating good publicity by being media friendly and having nice looking products that could be easily featured, and perhaps most importantly, offering a service that was remarkable enough that customers would recommend us to their networks (word-of-mouth marketing). We have a bigger marketing budget now but are largely still following those principles.

What is it about you (and your colleagues) that enables or drives you to do what you do?

I think that as entrepreneurs we have a deep frustration with things in the world that are not efficient or well-designed and a belief that we can make them better. This is what caused us to start something in the first place and it continues to be our motivation. There is so much that we are doing that we know can be done better. We are often criticised for setting new goals before we are finished celebrating past achievements.

What do other entrepreneurs ask of you the most?

Many ask, “What’s next?” and we don’t have a good answer for that yet. There are still so many exciting areas of growth and challenges to solve that for now we have our heads down and are pushing ahead.