Over the last little while, there has been this rise in Super Apps, these apps that attempt to be multi-functional “mobile malls”. In South Africa, Vodacom has released VodaPay where one can “enter” multiple stores to shop their products. Nedbank has Avo where one can also shop for products, except they are categorised by the type of product instead of by the shop. Even Snapscan, the payment app, has diversified and has started offering more products such as prepaid electricity and payments of entertainment events.
In addition to these, there are many smaller players who are starting new apps attempting to be the “Uber” of whichever industry they are trying to disrupt. This normally means trying to “digitise” an embodied and interpersonal process by replacing product and service discovery with a simpler online marketplace, replacing the act of selecting a product with detailed descriptions and customer reviews, replacing payment with integrations to payment gateways, and replacing the journey to a brick-and-mortar store with a delivery service.
The model has worked well in other national territories with an app such as WeChat, where one has the ability to pay others, shop on “mini-apps” within the main app as well as communicate with people like any other instant messaging service, all for the little inconvenience of having your social and economic habits tracked by the benevolent government of the People’s Republic of China.
On the other hand, recent data has shown that shopping mall traffic has started returning and even exceeding levels before the COVID 19 pandemic. Shopping habits have changed slightly, but people are back to going physically to stores. In addition to this, the recent negative turn of events in tech companies with wide-scale retrenchment is a result of large tech companies’ overly optimistic predictions on the move to digital purchasing by consumers. In July, e-commerce store platform Shopify reduced its workforce by 10% because the unnatural rise in online buying during the pandemic was not sustained when things started returning back to normal. The same has been happening for Meta and other online platforms. What does this mean for all the efficiencies brought about by online marketplaces, such as the discovery and vetting of new products, as well as the ease of payment?
In digitising many processes, what many of these super-apps have failed to digitise are the human relationships and connections that are at play in many commercial transactions. And the one app that has facilitated these connections is WhatsApp.
When someone is looking for a plumber, they’ll ask for recommendations on a WhatsApp group they are part of, as the human connections within the group are more trustworthy than third-party crowdsourced reviews on an app or website. In certain markets, one has the number saved of a taxi cab driver or a “boda guy” who they’ve grown to trust, instead of relying on a marketplace of supposedly vetted unknown drivers on an app. Similar with a hairdresser or barber, a tailor and so many other services. There are companies who’ve recognised this and started building services that complement this mode of communication, such as payments company Yoco which has a product called Yoco Link, where one can send a link through WhatsApp to initiate a payment.
People have started going back to shopping malls because trust is embodied. The feel of the fabric and putting on an outfit in a changing room can never be replaced by a disembodied online experience. The face to face conversations with a knowledgeable agent in a store can build more assurance than having online reviews only (which are also invaluable). The chatting to a small business owner to get more details about a service, and having them personally respond is more assuring than a generic chatbot. And instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp are complementary tools to the real foundation of economic transactions – trust. There is just the little inconvenience of having your social graph tracked by Meta, backed by the benevolent government of the United States of America.