Despite the global shift to digital marketing and mobile platforms, the unique African retail environment will rely on in-store experiences to drive sales for the foreseeable future.

While retailers on the continent might be tempted to simply adopt best practices from the United States and the United Kingdom, those more developed markets do not have the same obstacles that exist locally. Things such as high mobile data costs, unreliable internet access, and a lack of infrastructure to make deliveries to informal settlements exceptionally difficult contribute to a significantly more challenging environment.

In South Africa, the more diverse buying population is putting retailers under additional pressure as they need to be innovative in targeting the different segments. For example, what is the impact of selling products in a country with 11 official languages? Does a brand have to advertise in all 11 languages or pick only a few, potentially alienating the rest of the population? Furthermore, brands must balance selling the same retail products to not only the ultra-rich, but also those living below the poverty line. Again, the impact on messaging and tactical implementation is significant.

For example, most mothers opt for disposable nappies. But selling those same nappies to single mothers struggling to make ends meet, as opposed to those mothers living in relative luxury with live-in nannies, requires vastly different marketing strategies. This has resulted in some retail chains opening outlets in rural areas to better balance the extremes associated with customer demographics.

Identifying growth

Despite cynics arguing that tough economic conditions are resulting in a lack of growth in the retail environment, the reverse has been true. As is evident by the success of Black Friday in November and higher than expected December sales, there are still significant growth opportunities to be had.

And once more retailers realise the potential of taking products into rural communities, whether that is through going the strip mall route or an alternative platform, this will build momentum and start benefitting the economy of the country.

Yes, brands will stay true to the affluent suburbs and shopping centres but will now incorporate a more agile business model geared towards those unable to travel to cities and large towns. Smart retailers will leverage trusted marketing tools such as broadsheets and community media to reach their target audiences.

Using tried and true placements such as billboard and radio, they are creating messaging to fit those rural communities. These awareness drivers that are customised on such a micro level further differentiate South African retailers from their peers throughout the continent.

Completing the sales cycle

Furthermore, they need to link this advertising environment to what is happening from a retail store perspective. So, when someone enters the store, brands must harness all opportunities available to them to engage with the customer. From innovative window displays to optimising the shopper journey from arrival to point-of-sale, there are a myriad of brand engagement possibilities.

Of course, brands should not be blind to the potential of mobile and digital. The shift to mobile will happen once the cost of data has been addressed. It is a matter of monitoring the situation and being able to act on it when circumstances change.

No strategy should ever be cast in stone. Companies must adapt or die in the race to capture the ever-dwindling attention of shoppers. Increasingly, this is where partnerships with in-store retail experts will become critical as brands look for new ways to reach their target audiences, and close sales.