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The Rise of Omnichannel Commerce In Kenya’s Retail Sector

The last year or so has been when digital transformation permeated every industry and sector globally, including those in the least technologically advanced countries — they had no choice but to go digital. Ultimately, the key driver of this hyperspeed global digital transformation was the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone and everything became digital-first in many contexts such as work, life, education, business, etc. It seems hard to imagine that just a year or so ago we found Zoom calls somewhat awkward and now video conferencing has become as de rigueur as having a cup of tea or coffee for breakfast in the morning. It’s pretty clear that in the absence of alternatives, humanity can make wholesale changes to keep things going in some kind of normal.

As I think back to the past year of digital transformation, in the context of Kenya, one of the things that captured my imagination is how fast and far-reaching it has impacted the retail sector. As we all went into work-from-home, stay-at-home, social distanced, curfewed (I know such a word does not exist but it just sounded right!) and locked down, retail in Kenya went through radical changes in how it worked from a payments perspective. For the most part, pre-pandemic, when we went to restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, and other kinds of retail operations, often paying using cash, credit or debit cards and more than likely mobile money, also known Safaricom’s M-Pesa.

However, not being able to go to retail outlets due to the pandemic to have a cup of coffee or regular shopping meant changes had to come into play in how we made payments. For one thing, the Ministry of Health discouraged us quite aggressively in their public service messages from NOT using cash at all and instead opt for mobile money and other contactless forms of payment. This meant resorting to credit or debit cards on contactless point of sale (POS) terminals as well as M-Pesa being probably the most common payment option for most Kenyans at this time.

Another aspect that came into play was the explosion of e-commerce channels as many retail businesses pivoted to sell their products online since consumers could no longer frequent their establishments, especially in the hospitality sector. Retailers who did not have an e-commerce channel resorted to either building their own as a direct-to-consumer offering or ‘piggybacked’ on the likes of Jumia, Glovo, UberEATS, Sendy, and GoBEBA to go-to-market. Suddenly, numerous retailers went online and digital for all things payments. They had no choice — they simply had to get with the program — also known as what I like to call ‘CADiT’ (COVID-19 Accelerated Digital Transformation).

As you can imagine, for many of these retailers, quite literally overnight, they had to start accepting and handling payments from a myriad of offline and online payment channels concurrently to serve their customers. This meant that if customers wanted to purchase online they would need to be able to pay via mobile money, credit card, and debit card, all at once. If customers came in-store, they would still need the ability to pay on-site in cash or use mobile money as well as credit cards and debit cards. Meanwhile, as a retailer, you would need to make sense of this ‘spaghetti’ of payments and reconcile them all whilst still keeping a track of all your customers’ online and offline payments. To do this effectively means moving beyond single channel or even multichannel payments, it means going omnichannel commerce!

So, what is omnichannel commerce? Many definitions exist but quite simply it’s an approach to sales payments that focuses on providing a seamless customer experience whether shopping online, from a mobile device, or in a physical retail outlet. In a single-channel commerce scenario, a retailer serves customers only via their physical shop only, or maybe, as only an online retailer, without a physical channel.

In a multichannel commerce scenario, a retailer could have at the very least two customer channels such as a physical restaurant as well as an online shop. However, in omnichannel commerce, a retailer would have all channels seamlessly connected to accept customer payments irrespective of channel. If a retailer wants to adopt an omnichannel commerce payments model, they would also need to have a payment service provider to do so for them in their payments back-end.

It’s pretty clear to me that going forward the majority of retailers in Kenya will have to adopt an omnichannel commerce model if they are to stay competitive and customer-focussed in terms of their value proposition(s). There are a number of payment service providers (PSPs) in Kenya who offer omnichannel commerce payments propositions.

These would include point of sale (POS) PDQs for in-store retail, as well as online e-commerce payments via credit card, debit card, mobile money, and e-wallets. This means that a retailer in Kenya can have one integrated payment service provider (PSP) to enable omnichannel commerce and eliminate payment fragmentation.

Going forward, it stands to reason that omnichannel commerce will become more and more common in Kenya as consumer behavior continues to evolve post-pandemic. We now know that as much as we may save time and money doing our groceries online, there are times we just prefer to do it in-person, in-store. Retailers that have a comprehensive understanding of their customers’ purchasing behavior will be able to create delightful customer experiences, irrespective of touchpoints, through omnichannel commerce.

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