I spend a fair deal of time at the shops. For research, you understand. I’m hardly one for the "glorification of busy," but with results season, travel, and work commitments I just haven’t been able to do as much retail walkabout as I am habitually accustomed to do.
The consequence of this has been a spot of early morning or late night online shopping for things I wouldn’t usually buy on the Internet — like cheese, bread and Chuckles (sin goes with sin, right?).
While half the UK may disagree I find shopping online for food a soulless experience. I’m more of a tactile shopper — I like tasting grapes before I buy them.
There are things that I’m not unwilling to purchase online and they include books, toilet cleaner and eye cream. What I discovered from my shopfloor hiatus was that in SA, some categories still tend to be easier to buy online than others — not just from a personal-preference point of view but also in terms of store fulfilment. SA e-commerce is under 1% of a retail market worth more than R900bn. We’ve been nearing our epochal "tipping point" for, like, ever — and are seriously lagging behind other developing markets.
Five years ago pricey, slow broadband was blamed. But time and experience — which are great teachers — now point to other impediments, such as a fragmented courier industry, lack of trust in online payments and inflexibility in returning goods. There are players in the local e-commerce space doing a top job. Shoppers use them, get comfortable and, I think, almost break a psychological barrier that paves the way to start transacting on other sites. Recently, I spent some time with Woolworths in Cape Town and they told me they would launch what’s called a "dark store" to fix availability within their clothing business for online customers.
They’re a combination business — food and clothing – so selling both in one "shop" or as a single delivery online, tends to be tricky. In their food operation they typically gather an order from existing brick-and-mortar stores (so you, as a customer, would select the closest store to where you live/work and that’s where your shopping is collected from) which saves them having to invest in separate infrastructure. This doesn’t work for clothing. By the time one orders, say, a shirt online and the sales assistant processing the order goes onto the shop floor to select said shirt, another (real not virtual) customer sometimes buys the last one. A "dark store" will improve Woolworths’ fulfilment rate substantially — because it’s a totally separate shop, stocked with, well, stuff just for online shopping.
A "dark store" or dot-com-only store is essentially a global way of doing replenishment. No surprise it was pioneered in the UK by grocers like Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda.
This is what happened: online grocery volumes surged and the practicality of having "pickers" meandering around stores with hand-held trackers and large carts or bins, while physically present customers were shopping, just wasn’t cutting it.
Having a dedicated facility, so staff can walk around to compile orders, made sense. There’s nothing particularly fancy about them — no ambient lighting or Dirty Dancing soundtrack — and aisles are also apparently built wider, making negotiating between them more functional.
In a recent report AT Kearney found that British "dark stores" could be three times more efficient than traditional supermarkets — because they were laid out for optimal efficiency.
I guess, then, that a "dark store" is just a more eloquent term for warehouse.
Woolies has two aces up its sleeve when it comes to e-commerce: John Dixon, the David Jones boss and Marks & Spencer veteran, and Country Road Group, its division Down Under — where online accounts for close to 20% of sales.
I’m just so happy I didn’t hear them use the buzzword omnichannel. Vomit.