Highly regarded marketing and investment commentator professor Scott Galloway of Stern University recently shared a fascinating statistic: More US households own an Amazon Prime membership than decorate a Christmas Tree, own a pet or go to church in 2020.

This statistic speaks to the changing consumer landscape across the globe and the role that digital platforms now play in the retail space.

While SA does lag some of its first-world peers in terms of digital consumption such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday — trading statistics presented insights on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and what it might mean for retailers going forward.

In the past, Black Friday has been viewed as an opportunity for retailers to do physical activations and sell big-ticket items such as electronics and home appliances through in-store activations. Cyber Monday was then a chance for the online retail operations to kick into gear.

For obvious reasons, 2020 has not been a normal year: retailers didn’t see queues outside their physical stores and many of the deep discounts did not materialise.  

While some of this can be attributed to economic pressures, we need to remember that many retailers did not have a normal stock year — it takes up to six months to prepare for Black Friday, and many retailers didn’t have Easter specials or the ability to plan their stock levels due to the lockdowns that were implemented worldwide.

With the festive season upon us, it’s worth studying some of the data to better understand exactly how consumers reacted this year.

The first standout data point is that the “real Black Friday” actually took place in March 2020. More than R1.2bn in transactions took place the day before lockdown level 5 came into effect and the three days before that were three of the four highest days in terms of transaction volumes.

However, only certain categories benefited as consumers were stocking up on alcohol, groceries and fitness equipment leading to a spike in consumer activity across the country.

With the lockdowns starting to bite, unemployment spiked in the third quarter of 2020 and came in at 30.8% — the highest recorded since the Quarterly Labour Force Survey began in 2008.

This was reflected in the data we saw as the traditional Black Friday rolled around.

According to data out of BankServAfrica, in-store card purchases on November 27 numbered just under 5-million, a decrease of 30% compared with 2019. Online transactions spiked by more than 60% to just below 870,000 sales in total. This represented an increase of 300,000 extra online sales.

There were 2-million fewer sales in physical stores according to the BankServ data.

Looking specifically at Absa data:

  • Black Friday spend in 2020 decreased by 22.4%, with just over 2-million Absa card customers swiping or clicking on the day. The total turnover for the day on Absa card customers was about R2.7bn, and 5.2-million transactions took place.
  • Total turnover for Absa acquiring data was about R6.9bn over the Black Friday weekend.
  • The card issuing spend for the Black Friday weekend was 22.4% down on last year, while payment acceptance showed a 31% decrease, which correlates somewhat with Bankserv statistics.
  • There were 86 transactions approved every second, down by about 23 transactions, valued at R47k a second, also down with about R21k a second from the previous year.

Insights retailers can use in their decision-making process:

1. There was a shift from credit to debit card in 2020: While this statistic needs to be investigated further, it may suggest that many consumers are reaching their credit limits and this may have a material impact on the December spending habits.

Absa data showed that credit card transactions declined for both credit card “present” and “card not present” transactions.

Online spend for debit card transactions rose 29% over the period.

2. Consumer confidence is coming back: Data out of the Stellenbosch-based Bureau of Economic Research reported a spike in consumer and wholesaler confidence, after a sharp increase in consumer spend in the third quarter.

3. ... but consumers are feeling the pinch: Considering that many retailers choose to run a longer sale programme throughout November, it is also noticeable that the whole month of November 2020 is comparatively down 2.7% compared with November 2019. This is striking against October where traded value was up 17%. Most categories reduced in value processed, except the building and home improvement.

Even the biggest traders in the food and groceries category show reduced trading in November.

It remains to be seen whether the termination of the UIF and TERS benefits plays a material role in consumer confidence in December.

4. Consumers are changing what they buy: The December sales update out of Italtile showed the work-from-home trend was driving a clear shift towards greater investment in the home, aided by restrictions on travel and other recreational activities.

5. Consumers are changing how they pay: Despite some challenges with online channels it’s clear to see that customers are embracing new payment channels such as Tap and Go and online more than doubling from 8% in 2019 to 22% in 2020. New payment types such as Samsung Pay, Garmin Pay, Apple Pay, Fitbit Pay and others can also be seen to be used to pay for goods such as groceries, fuel and food on the go.

Financial results coming out of the retail groups suggest that those who made the shift towards digital channels have reaped benefits.

Reporting interim results in November, online sales at The Foschini Group (TFG) now make up 14.4% of total turnover. Online turnover in TFG Africa and TFG Australia experienced strong growth of 115.8% (in rand terms) in TFG Africa and 66.8% (in Australian dollars) in TFG Australia for the six months to end-September 30 2020.

Woolworths reported a pleasing shift towards digital channels when reporting its sales for the 20 weeks ended November 15 2020. The group provides an interesting marker for the health of the consumer due to its diversified geographic footprint and product ranges.

While talk of Covid-19 vaccines arriving in early 2021 have boosted market confidence, digital channels are expected to play bigger roles in the consumer and retail space — it just remains to be seen whether the economy has enough momentum to sustain this consumer rebound.

About the author: Isana Cordier is sector head: consumer goods and services at Absa CIB.

This article was paid for by Absa CIB.

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