Retail in COVID-19 times: innovation, e-commerce and scaling successfully


“The only constant is change,” might seem like an overbeaten cliché but COVD-19 has once again brought the veracity and usefulness of the expression to bear. Whilst pandemics are not new, the effects of the current one, anchored largely upon the world being interconnected on a scale never seen before has left no country, industry or business unaffected.

And although the net effect appears to be negative, as with any crisis, there has been a great opportunity presented to introspect and make positive adjustments. The pandemic, which seemingly came out of nowhere, has changed the way we work, learn, socialise, leisure and conduct business, and retail is no exception.

The nation, and by extension, the continent, seems to have been spared the worst of the pandemic. However, there are changes being experienced to every facet of life, which by all indications will remain permanent features

Conservative estimates suggest that at least 85% of businesses in the country are Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), which contribute approximately 70% to GDP. Furthermore, whilst debate still rages on about the most appropriate definition of the informal sector, it is agreed upon by most that it includes small and large scale sectors, largely unorganized but economically productive which are usually slow to adopt (modern) corporate practices, with retail being the largest segment.

The retail space, which had previously been characterized by cultural practices such as in-person purchase to ensure quality and rapport building, varying standards and price-haggling, had in recent times began to give way to less personal, more standardised ways of doing things.

With rapid urbanisation and the demands of work, particularly in cities, the inertia that initially greeted the adoption of e-commerce has largely disappeared.  The advent of COVID has only served to accelerate what was already in motion.

For context, a panelist CEO of Hubtel, Alex Bram revealed at the recently held MTN Business World Executive Breakfast Meeting that demand for food and personal effects were up by some 400% in the months following the lockdown with 200% rise in digital payments witnessed. In addition, he disclosed that his firm has seen a steady rate of some 120 new clients using its e-commerce tools.  Such figures point to the premium customers are willing to pay for convenience and quality.

While a short-term reaction is needed to survive, long-term planning and execution will determine those who emerge from the pandemic as market leaders. So the question on the minds of retailers must be, how best can businesses innovate, particularly using technological tools in the changing face of retail?

Retail’s new face

It is a given that due to security fears or simple preferences for a personal experience, many had been reluctant to shop online, but this has changed. Customers have had to set aside their misgivings and, in many cases, have been pleasantly surprised. The convenience of not having to go a physical brick-and-mortar store has outweighed the factors which were once considered deal breakers for them.

In light of this, it is evident that the vast majority of retailers without some form of an online presence and/or delivery channel are unlikely to survive in the medium to long term. Whilst there might be exceptions, such as vendors who provide certain niche products to a unique clientele, for theirs, embracing e-commerce s increasingly becoming non-negotiable.

For retailers and brands looking to grow online, there are two basic routes to be considered – launching and managing their own brand store or using existing electronic marketplaces. Many successful retailers are carefully mixing both.

A business’s scale and scope of operation and consumer base will be the determining factor as to which of the two strategies to apply or what combination of both.

The brand store is a retailer’s own online channel, which should be integrated with existing offline operations. This allows for greater engagement with new and existing customers and more control of service levels. Crucially, it allows the retailer to provide a consistent experience and message to its customers.

While it has many advantages, it can be expensive to set up, promote and maintain and may take time to launch and requires whole new mindsets, skillsets and capabilities which can be quite difficult to acquire as they very much in demand. In reality, not many retailers require a full-blown digital channel.

Enter option number two; existing electronic marketplaces.  Many retailers are enjoying the benefits of listing on existing marketplaces including Tonaton and Jumia. They allow for an accelerated online market presence, a low initial outlay and access to a platform with a track record.  Some refer to these market places as ‘the shopping malls of the future’ and are increasingly important for helping retailers trade at volume.

Again, there are downsides to this approach. Obtaining a listing can require strict adherence to defined and challenging service levels which many small retailers might not be able to meet. Also, any retailers on these platforms will be one among many others and the competition can be quite intense for those who don’t have a strong brand presence or some kind of unique offering. Furthermore, instances of fraud have been recorded by persons using these platforms, which go to weaken public confidence in the fidelity of goods and services listed.

Thankfully, a number of indigenous financial technology firms are by themselves or in collaboration with more established financial institutions (and in some instances telecommunication companies), offering a number of business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) e-commerce solutions for retailers.


Two primary considerations seem like the most likely to impede the advancement of innovation and e-commerce adoption in retail in the country. As has been established, the retail sector is vast and is populated by persons with stunted literacy.

A great challenge would be how to educate them (without being condescending) about the merits of e-commerce solutions particularly for businesses whose goods and services are largely priced inelastic, that is, price doesn’t have as much an effect on demand. Players in the retail segments Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and other essential commodities spaces are likely to fall under this category.

Also, for a society where verifiable personal records are not a feature, there is the lingering issue of (mis)trust. Even with the advancements in e-commerce, there are still concerns surrounding trade conducted without in-person interactions.


The aforementioned MTN Business Breakfast session held under the theme, ‘The Changing Face of Retail in Ghana: Scaling successfully with Innovation & E-commerce’, brought to bear some insight from seasoned business owners on how to navigate the murky waters of new retail.

These include a revaluation of business models, especially digital business models. Participants were advised to revisit the foundation of their business models to ensure that they are still valid in the context of digital sales channels, profit models, and the services that can be provided to customers.

Contrary to the convention of cutting expenditure on marketing as the first line of action whenever there is a downturn in demand, Business Strategist and CEO of the Hair Senta, Gwen Gyimah Addo, entreated business owners to streamline their marketing through digital platforms such as social media.

Also, customer experience was identified was vital to the success of any retailer post-pandemic. With increasingly limited in-person interaction, customers are placing a premium on the ease of use of digital platforms, the general level of convenience.

Businesses were also implored by the CEO of indigenous coffee brand Kawa Moka Coffee, Emi-beth Aku Quantson, to revamp their supply chain to ensure they have enough of their products to satisfy consumer demand.

CEO of Skin Gourmet, Violet Amoabeng, for instance, identified first impression as arguably the most crucial factor in post-pandemic retail as such emphasis must be laid on packaging and delivery, especially for goods and services which might be ingested or applied to the body. Business owners must “go over and beyond,” especially when dealing with unmet expectations by customers.

Closely related to this was trust and integrity and how faithfully the good or service meets the clams of the vendor, “promise little, delver much,” was advocated over the opposite.

Even payment platforms must be reliable, the panel suggested, with MTN’s Mobile Money market share attributed in no small part to the reach and trustworthiness of the platform.

Poor performance in any of those areas could result in severe damage to a retailer’s brand. Consumers have grown accustomed to a very smooth online purchasing experience and rapid delivery. People will walk away from a brand, both in its online and offline incarnations if the experience is in any way sub-optimal.

Looking ahead

The evolution of retail as a result of the pandemic has presented a great opportunity to push the Made-In-Ghana agenda and increase appetite for local commodities in the face of the options that could potentially flood our markets when AfCFTA takes-off. However, it remains to be seen if local vendors can sustain supply to match demand.

In view of this, a handful of institutions are providing a bouquet of solutions for MSMEs and Small Office/Home Office (SOHO) outfits, with MTN characteristically ahead of the pack.

The array of tailored solutions offered by MTN include the MTN Business Manager which offers SMEs and SOHOs the features of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Sales Management software and business management service all in one user-friendly and affordable digital platform. This service comes with both the web portal and mobile app with full features available for less than GH¢ 10.

Others include the MTN Business Messenger, a service that allows SMEs and SOHOs to manage their communications with their customers and manage their social media presence. The platform allows businesses to instantly communicate with multiple customers in bulk via SMS as well as the MTN Unicom, geared toward providing access to audio and video conferencing solutions, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), and Virtual Private Branch Exchange (PBX) for businesses to enable them to stay in touch with and maintain the modern digital business image.

There is much to be benefitted from if small businesses form partnership arrangements to take advantage of the specialities of the individual firms and could be a game-changer across many value chains.

Whilst we seem to be winning the battle against COVID-19 in our sphere, what the future holds is anyone’s guess, there’s now no excuse for failing to prepare for any eventuality. Indeed, it seems quite evident that companies that invest courageously and timely in pivoting their businesses toward the behavioural changes can capture market shares and emerge as market leaders post-pandemic.

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