Jamaican retailers still not fully embracing e-commerce
Online shopping is growing locally but the majority of Jamaican consumers still prefer the tactile experiences offered by brick-and-mortar stores, according to retailers.
It’s one of the primary reasons why some major local retailers have yet to fully embrace e-commerce by investing in online shopping platforms for customers.
Supermarket chain MegaMart launched an online platform during the heights of the COVID—19 pandemic, when movement was restricted, but closed it when the restrictions were lifted.
“It wasn’t viable,” MegaMart CEO Gassan Azan told Observer Online, pointing to local consumers’ overwhelming appetite to see, touch and feel products.
Michael Ammar Jr, owner of the Ammar’s chain of fashion stores, expressed similar sentiments.
“We tried online but it was more used as a look book than a purchasing platform because we find that, still, people in Jamaica, who are shopping in Jamaica, want to come and touch and feel – try it on and that sort of thing,” Ammar Jr said.
He also noted that it would be very difficult for the store to showcase all its products on a website due to the “sheer number of items that we carry and (the fact that) they are non-repetitive”.
Montego Bay-based Lloyd’s Department Store is another major retailer that is yet to delve fully into e-commerce. Anthony Pearson, who has been operating the business since 1965, said while the company has “dabbled” in offering household items for purchase online, it is “very challenging” to sell clothing virtually.
“It is going to happen but, for department store clothing, it is very challenging and we are not ready for that yet,” Pearson said. “You would be surprised how many people are having problems when they click (and purchase an item on an online shopping site), and when the goods come here they can’t fit; and the return policies for those things are very difficult.”
Jamaican consumers are not unique in their preference. Numerous researches conducted across the world indicate that shoppers still prefer feeling and seeing products in person before making their purchases.
According to The State of Retail & E-Commerce Report: H1 2023, a study conducted in the United States earlier this year, two-thirds of consumers prefer shopping in stores for apparel, shoes, and accessories, while less than a third prefers shopping online for home furnishings and appliances as well as beauty and personal care products.
It is against this background why the likes of Pearson feel the shopping experience is still one of the most important differentiating factors for retail companies.
“Customer service is not something that you can get with online shopping, that face-to-face customer service is what is really going to keep brick and mortar going,” he said in an earlier interview.
Ammar Jr noted, “We are more about value and full service, that’s what makes us different from online.
“We (at Ammar’s) have a ‘no questions ask’ refund policy. If you want to come in and take up 20 pairs of pants, try them on and bring them back, you get your money back right away,” he noted.
Still, several local retailers are investing in e-commerce platforms to expand sales, and are reporting success.
Bulk goods seller PriceSmart expanded its “click and go” online shopping service to Jamaica, allowing club members to shop via the Internet, during the pandemic. It said last year that its online sales in the country were growing at double-digit levels even though it still accounted for a small percentage of sales.
GraceKennedy’s Hi-Lo Food Stores has also reported growth in its e-commerce platform, Hi-Lo Online, which it said offers convenient grocery shopping for customers.
“There was year over year growth in revenue from this channel compared to prior year, and in 2023 new initiatives will be implemented to further grow and enhance the platform,” the conglomerate said in its 2022 Annual Report.
Also, despite their preference for tactile experiences, Jamaican consumers are increasingly flocking to e-commerce platforms run by shipping companies to purchase items overseas. Goods bought overseas are often cheaper than similar products offered locally, and individuals benefit from duty concessions on items up to a value of US$50.
Ryan Anderson, the CEO of RTA Biz Shipping/ShipIt Ja, says the industry is experiencing significant growth in online sales across a wide range of product categories.
“Despite economic concerns, customers are actively shopping online, indicating a rising reliance on e-commerce platforms. Clothing, household goods, and toys are among the things seeing an increase in sales. This tendency reflects a transforming consumer landscape in which convenience and accessibility are increasingly important, especially in the face of financial constraints,” Anderson said.