Coronavirus — what Zambian businesses can learn from UK and USA

Sara Drawwater
14 April 2020
In weeks when leading UK brands like Debenhams and Cath Kidston call in the administrators, as a result of the impact of the Coronavirus…

Coronavirus — what Zambian businesses can learn from UK and USA

In weeks when leading UK brands like Debenhams and Cath Kidston call in the administrators, as a result of the impact of the Coronavirus, what lessons can we learn and apply to our local retail sector here in Zambia?

In this article

  1. A call to pull together
  2. The current retail scenario in UK and US
  • Online shopping becomes essential overnight
  • Health, safety and ethics

3. Lessons for Zambian retailers

  • Crisis, innovation and opportunity
  • Can we innovate through ecommerce?
  • Can we innovate through creativity?

4. Resources to help your business survive COVID-19

5. Ecommerce by — empowering businesses to stay open for business

A call to pull together

Before I continue I must point out that I am in no way downplaying the human suffering brought on by COVID-19. There is no question that the Coronavirus is devastating. Its impact is far reaching — loss of life, families torn apart, physical and mental health challenges and the negative impact on the economy and people’s livelihoods.

My message is that in times of crisis we must pull together. We must look to the future. We must be hopeful of the opportunity to rebuild our businesses and the economy and of life beyond this pandemic. We have to mitigate its impact and develop strategies to continue. Although we face extreme challenges, it must, as much as possible, be business as usual.

“These are extraordinary times, and we must take bold and decisive actions to save and protect millions of lives in Africa. We are in a race to save lives. No country will be left behind,” Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank Group.

The current retail scenario in UK and USA

Online shopping becomes essential overnight

“Shopping will undoubtedly become a heavily eCommerce activity during this period. Those retailers who do not currently trade on the internet, such as Primark, will surely be wondering if ignoring online shopping all these years was the right decision.” (

Online retail has been gaining momentum for years with a current UK penetration of 20%. Today the predictions for online shopping are being supercharged as people minimise their contact with other people on a global scale.

ACI Worldwide have already analysed millions of worldwide transactions and found that online sales have risen sharply in March 2020, with 74% growth in average online transaction volume.

The UK is currently beginning week 4 of ‘lockdown’ and “The Government’s scientific advisory committee, SAGE, has always suggested that a 13-week programme of interventions will be needed” (BBC).

A lengthy period of social distancing and enforced ‘lock-down’ is going to convince a larger proportion of people to shop online. Long queues outside grocery shops, one-in-one-out door policies and the worry about every audible sneeze, sniff and cough is not a positive shopping experience.

James Thomson, partner at Buy Box Experts, and previous head of Amazon Services says, “If foot traffic to brick-and-mortar retailers remains nonexistent for more than four to six weeks, retailers will have a hard time remaining financially viable, and consumer shopping preferences may well have changed enough that there is a ‘new norm’ by which more consumers do more shopping online going forward”.

Essential items like supermarkets have experienced a clear unexpected boost in sales. But without the time to plan for this spike in demand, many supermarket chains have been unable to cater for the overnight increase in demand for online orders, click and collect and delivery.

At the same time people are reigning in their spending in these uncertain times. This may change somewhat as people start to feel more secure with the UK roll out of Government bailouts but it would be naive not to recognise the negative economic impact of the pandemic both now and for a long time to come.

Fashion retail has taken a particular beating as people adjust to life at home. There is of course less reason to buy clothing to impress when you are working from home and all social gatherings have been cancelled. On the flip side, stylish Instagram worthy loungewear and comfy clothing is seeing demand grow.

Other rising retail trends are all things related to a life of quarantine — home exercise equipment, home working, home schooling and home entertainment.

It is the strong belief of Paul Martin, UK head of retail at KPMG, that Covid-19 will precipitate a rapid increase in eCommerce activity. He discussed this during a panel discussion at this week’s Retail Transformation Live online event, saying: “Online is an increasingly important channel in the UK, and we know there is a penetration of about 20%. I would argue this pandemic will significantly increase these penetration rates: individuals who have not interacted with online on an everyday basis will now, in many cases, be forced to do that. I also think it is very likely we will see an acceleration of the demise of the physical store.”

The impact of the coronavirus will bring many more newcomers to Ecommerce and once the seed is sown, and new habits are formed as a result of enforced lockdown, there may be no going back.

Post Coronavirus we may also find that retailers drive consumers towards their Ecommerce shops as they choose to reduce the costs and risks now associated with physical stores.

Health, safety and ethics

While the the Coronavirus points to the reign of the online purchase, it is also shining a light on company ethics and the potential long term reputational damage of companies who get this wrong. Social media is touting good guys versus bad guys, heroes versus villains. Customers are watching how organisations are responding.

While more customers go online in recognition that social distancing is key for their own health and safety and to stop the spread of the virus, they are not turning a blind eye to the workers involved in getting their products to them.

They want the companies they buy from to ensure picking, packing and delivery staff can maintain a minimum of 2 meters between each other and have access to safety equipment like sanitizer and gloves. They want to see that staff are not forced to work due to lack of sick pay options, and that companies do everything they can to treat them fairly.

Retailers who fall into the bad guy category are being publicly slated and boycotted. It is very likely that the damage done now will not be forgotten when we do get over this pandemic.

Lessons for Zambian retailers

It’s pretty clear that the Ecommerce sector in the UK and USA is significantly more established than the Ecommerce sector in Zambia. Western Ecommerce is trusted by many, has significant market penetration and has established systems and processes for its handling. This is not the case in Zambia. So what can we take from the above Western-centric trends?

Crisis, innovation and opportunity

Crisis forces innovation. What novel ways can we use to adapt? What can we do differently in order for our businesses to survive? How can we encourage self isolating consumers to continue shopping, something that is the lifeblood of the economy? How can we stimulate cash flow? How can we creatively support local businesses and communities?

Can we innovate through ecommerce?Firstly, people still need products. To start with, they especially need essential food supplies and items for work and schooling at home. The longer this goes on, the more their product needs will evolve. What is the safest way we can get these products to the people? Ecommerce.

Ecommerce is one of the most obvious ways people and businesses can innovate as a response to COVID-19 in Zambia. How quickly can we collectively respond?

Ecommerce means your businesses can remain open for business. Whilst you may need to adapt your product range and adjust to the needs of the time, the more products you have available for purchase online the more robust your business will be.

Ecommerce means people have safer access to products. Businesses need to respond to the needs of the people and give them this option; and people need to use their initiative and start buying whatever products they can online.

Some of you may argue that not enough of the Zambian population buys online. We have had some conversations with business owners that suggest their early attempts at ecommerce have been rather lacklustre. I would argue it is just a matter of time. The clues are already here.

  • We know that people already buy online from international retailers using services like Tigmoo and iShop to get their products to Zambia.
  • In March The Bank of Zambia issued a statement announcing measures “aimed at reducing cash transactions and facilitating increased use of mobile money transactions” with the aim of reducing “the risk of transmission of COVID-19 through the handling of cash”. The bank is calling for people to “stay safe, go cashless”.
  • The ‘rush’ for Ecommerce might appear slow, but it is evident — we can see some established businesses making the transition for themselves, more delivery companies are popping up and there’s a small selection of potentially viable Ecommerce solutions on the horizon.

Clearly there are a few things which need to happen for online shopping to become more mainstream in Zambia.

  • The range of products available online is currently not big enough to be a strong enough attraction.
  • Ecommerce needs to become a dependable shopping tool that people trust. This is especially true in times like these when people will be carefully considering how they spend their money. Business owners need to answer the call with efficient systems so that when people do try out ecommerce, their experience is positive. Financial transactions must be secure. Items need to be ready for click and collect and deliveries need to arrive on time. Refunds need to be processed smoothly if they are required. We cannot afford to get this wrong if we want to gain traction.
  • In a fledgling Ecommerce sector, it takes the likes of Amazon and large department stores that stock a large variety of products to pave the way by providing ‘everything’ online in one place. While the rise of niche independent shops through ecommerce is clear to see in the West, it followed in the footsteps of big ecommerce platforms.

The question is, how quickly can businesses provide the range and dependable efficiency that customers want and need from ecommerce in Zambia?

Can we innovate through creativity?

A Real Leaders article says that “Millions of business owners are scrambling to reinvent their businesses. Many have already found innovative ways to roll with the punches — from rethinking supply chains, redeploying staff, offering crucial advice, and even recreating your favorite bar online.”

Here are some creative ideas you could use to reinvent your business in response to COVID-19.

Ask important questions

  • How do you expect your customers to behave going forward?
  • What really matters to them right now?
  • What will and won’t matter to them at different stages of the Coronavirus pandemic?
  • Can you digitize any of your products or services and offer them online?

Get all essential goods online quicklyThink of products like staple foods, personal care like skincare and natural hair products, books and homeschooling materials and small luxuries to cheer people up, like pizza and chocolate.

Follow the trends

What are the big growth areas? The obvious exceptional demand for Personal Protective Equipment? Stylish masks and loungewear? DIY beauty treatments? Can your business offer a solution?

The Edited dashboard and analysis is a fantastic bird’s-eye resource for retailers who are behind the curve like us in Zambia. Use the tool to pick up on trends and monitor what retailers in other countries have done in their attempts to stay afloat.

The Coronovirus Second Order Effects by the Mental Model Club offers fascinating insight into the domino effect of the Coronovirus. It suggests the likely impact and opportunities that are beyond the immediate consequences we are processing right now. According to them, “When you see future challenges, you can avoid them. When you see future opportunities first, you can capitalize on them first.”

Reinvent your offering

Get creative with your products and services. What responsive products and packages can you roll out? Online shopping? Gift vouchers? Savings systems? No-contact delivery and click and collect? Give and get options that positively impact the community?

For example, you could put together a pre-packed ‘essential’ food box like Marks & Spencer and Morrison’s in the UK. Depending on your brand you could get very creative with these, pitching them as essential boxes, treat boxes or even homeschooling boxes for different ages and grades. These boxes can become everything your customers need to survive lockdown. For example, ‘A week’s supply of fruit and vegetables for your family’ or ‘The daily toddler activity pack’.

Adjust your language

Don’t be afraid to evolve how you communicate to stimulate much needed cash flow. Here are some leading brand and local examples.

  • ‘Nothing says kicking back at home quite like a good pair of jeans. 30% off’ Topshop
  • ‘Social distancing from your jeans right now?’ — The activewear brand, Sweaty Betty
  • ‘Unlimited next day delivery and free returns for £9.99’ — Coast VIP
  • ‘Invest in timeless tailoring for less. Looks good now, looks just as good later’ — Burton suits
  • ‘Start with a free custom domain for 5 years, then build a free website, to get your business online quickly’ — Mailchimp.

And here are some great local examples that we’ve spotted

  • ‘It’s boring being stuck at home. But it’s fun to think about all the places you’re going to go to next. Here are some city escape ideas to help you keep the dream alive.’ — Avani Hotels & Resorts
  • Tell your customers to limit their use of cash. They can pay contactless with Ecobankpay — Ecobank Zambia
  • The gift card is a great way to ensure your employees or loved ones can purchase their necessities during this time #WeShallProudlyServe — Shoprite Zambia

Adjust your communicationsCommunication also becomes vitally important. Keep your customers up to date and engaged. Manage their expectations. If you’re closed, let them know. If they can still access your products, tell them how. Inform your customers if you’re out of stock due to supply chains. Outline what you are doing to care for your staff and customers. Share how you are supporting your local community through the crisis.

Help bring people and communities together with campaigns that involve ‘feel good’ action, challenges and activities. These are surefire ways to have people talking about your brand for the right reasons, something which could pay dividends long into the future, post this Coronavirus landscape.

Here are some examples from leading brands

  • Gift vouchers — Tripadvisor has urged people to #Loveyourlocal by buying gift cards. This immediate cash for activities people can enjoy later can help local travel related businesses survive in the short term.
  • Ebay has launched an Up & Running campaign designed to help who can no longer trade from their brick and mortar shops. Businesses can join eBay and run a store for free for three months with no selling fees to eBay. Ebay is also providing educational webinars and business support.
  • Give and get campaigns — Standart is a highly reputed publication in the world of coffee professionals. Since independent coffee shops are being hit hard by COVID-19 Standart launched their give and get campaign with the aim of raising money for coffee shops in need. “For the next two weeks, the profit of all new subscriptions will go to support your favourite coffee shop. This means that if you buy a yearly subscription with a unique referral code from the shop you want to support, half of what you pay goes straight to them. No ifs. No buts. No maybes.
  • Bacardi’s #RaiseYourSpirits campaign involves a cocktail delivery program that aims to help independent bars and bartenders by delivering premium cocktails to local bar customers. This campaign is giving over 120 bars in London and Manchester a “virtual bar” platform to sell their cocktails to local customers and have them delivered. Bacardi is also hiring bartenders to host YouTube tutorials on how to make cocktails, and is paying some bartenders their fees in advance for future events. They have also started making hand sanitizer in their Bombay Sapphire distillery producing 2,000 litres per week.

In summary, Zambia is in a somewhat privileged position because we are behind the curve. We can learn from the impact the Coronavirus has had on businesses in Asia and Europe. We can learn from their responses. And dare I say it — there is opportunity in this crisis. Opportunity to pivot, innovate, communicate, support, and do the right thing.

During hard times selling and advertising can be tricky but you can carefully navigate through these dangerous waters with thoughtfully created offers. Adweek have published an updated list of how marketers are responding to the Coronavirus. It’s a great resource to get you thinking about how your business could respond and also provide much needed help.

During this time, be honest with your customers. Tell them how they can support you so you can survive this crisis and be there post COVID-19. Help people understand why your business is a key cog in the economic ecosystem and why you must survive for your stakeholders. You may well be surprised at their response.

Resources to help your business survive COVID-19

Ecommerce by — empowering businesses to stay open for business

According to, “This may be an opportunity for the retailers that have lagged in the ecommerce space. This could accelerate digital transformation… Out of necessity, they may even explore showrooming and downsizing retail footprints as shoppers develop new habits.”

We never imagined launching our Ecommerce facility in the midst of such a global crisis but this is the timing and this is the reality. I am not ashamed to say that our Ecommerce platform is needed now more than ever. I am proud to say that your business does not need a big budget or the technical know how to get your Ecommerce shop off the ground. I am not ashamed to say that the more businesses take this on and the more people that use our platform to buy online, the more people we can help in their time of need. To me, this is about innovating quickly for the greater good.

It is time for people and businesses to adapt quickly and we’re offering businesses the chance to launch their online shop on in a matter of days.

We encourage businesses to work with us. Our Ecommerce facility is here for your business, ready to help you adapt and reach your customers in what needs to be a cashless, and more remote, business environment. Our approach is to:

  1. Give people a shopping tool that minimises their contact with other people as well as being more convenient and accessible.
  2. Encourage the massive cultural change that is needed to move the majority of local shopping transactions online and to help our clients offer a more Corona friendly shopping experience. To do this we’ve reduced our commission to 6% and are working with our clients to offer a 5% Click and Collect discount.
  3. Provide extra support to our clients, doing everything we possibly can to help them transition to the online space and continue to do business in a fast changing and difficult economic environment.

If you run a business in Zambia and want to quickly set up your online shop, simply email us on and we’ll guide you through the process.