Virtual shopping: Wired to buy

Published: April 6, 2014
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E-commerce may not be the future, but the present of shopping in Pakistan. DESIGN : MUNIRA ABBAS

E-commerce may not be the future, but the present of shopping in Pakistan. DESIGN : MUNIRA ABBAS

Browse. Select. Buy. Shopping online couldn’t get any simpler, but in Pakistan, e-commerce has yet to establish an uninterrupted connection with users. People still prefer the cash on delivery option, in which they trust a stranger with the house address, but hesitate to enter their credit card number into a secured website.

“We don’t trust the virtual world as we have no control over it,” says Ayesha Sajid, who runs a Facebook retail page for fashion items under the name Shoppingale. “Consumers hesitate to pay through bank transfers and are more willing to use branchless mobile banking or cash on delivery.” According to Sajid, people prefer to purchase things off the shelf which gives them a sense of instant gratification that is absent in online shopping. When the young entrepreneur started off initially, her customers only had the option of online bank transfers and phone or mobile transfers. “I would lose out on 10% of daily visitors on the page every day because I couldn’t offer them the option to pay on delivery.” Backed by popular demand, she was therefore forced to introduce this option. “Shoppingale’s growth in number of orders per month has increased four times over ever since,” she claims.

Sajid is not alone in today’s growing pool of internet entrepreneurs to have survived the wave of scepticism. Mehdi Hasnain, the CEO and one of the five masterminds behind tohfay.com, mamooinpakistan.com and shopdaily.pk, has also experienced the issue firsthand. When he launched tohfay.com in 2002, an online delivery and service provider site, the target audience for the site were expats and foreigners interested in Pakistani handicrafts. “We were catering to Pakistanis who weren’t in Pakistan, so e-commerce wasn’t a foreign concept to them. We are glad that they were ready to take that leap of faith with a Pakistani website,” he reasons. After an unpleasant experience at a fast  food restaurant in Karachi where Hasnain was unapologetically served a cold meal, he was determined to establish a relationship of trust with customers by emphasising personal care. And by doing just that, tohfay.com has consistently exceeded customer expectations, he says.

Hasnain’s venture has since come a long way by tapping in on a basic social need. “We realised that gifts from customers in the US, to friends and family in Pakistan, was a more viable and profitable business. We started with a few products such as cakes and flowers, but quickly our catalogue grew to over 5,000 products,” he says. The next attempt at expansion was, however, a riskier affair. Hasnain set out to familiarise tohfay.com’s services with a Pakistani audience, meanwhile re-branding it as shopdaily.pk for expats. The task was uphill but Husnain, equipped with his experience of personalised care, has delivered Pakistanis a service they just can’t resist.

From singing birthday jingles to a recipient at midnight to offering funeral prayers on behalf of a bereaved son living abroad, tohfay.com offers a wide range of choices. Following its success in Pakistan and its 2005 advertising campaign, many companies have taken the cue and introduced their own online-based delivery services. A popular example is the TCS Sentiments Express, an online gift shop.

Along with tohfay, mamooinpakistan serves a similar purpose. The website specialises in providing its customers with unique services even in the remotest of areas. It has enabled the delivery of 5,000 flowers to a recipient in Gujranwala and a motorcycle as a graduation gift for a recipient residing in a small town in Sindh. And barring a few objectionable requests, the common one being the acquisition of fake degrees and driving licenses, mamooinpakistan entertains all, even honouring a bizarre request of arranging a nikkah ceremony along with two witnesses, over the phone.

And while these websites are getting many hits, they might not be in the millions. “A lot of people are not very internet-savvy so shopping with online carts may be hard for them to understand right now,” explains Sajid. “But fast forward a few years, get us 3G, make us internet-enabled and let cheaper smart phones infiltrate the market and people will begin to see the real potential of online businesses.” Friendly websites and minimalistic designs that make it visually easy to navigate online are some of the key factors, she highlights. According to her, success is guaranteed after the growth she witnessed in her own online venture. “The sky is the limit, provided you give personalised services and are willing to go the extra mile for your customer.”

With success stories piling up in recent times, e-commerce is beginning to receive strong signals from Pakistan. Shaadiwaadi.com, a match-making endeavour by team tohfay, is a testimony to the unlimited potential for the virtual business industry in the country. Although it has no success stories to boast yet, the website, along with its predecessors, is strategically mending all the faulty links to e-commerce dominance.

Erum Shaikh heads the blogs desk at The Express Tribune and has an undergraduate degree in Law from the University of London. She tweets @shaikherum

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 6th, 2014.

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