3 instances of ecommerce becoming ‘enabling’ commerce

If there’s one thing that nearly every economy in the world has in common today, it’s the love of shopping. Shopping drives our consumerist society. With online shopping, a full-fledged consumerist lifestyle is just a click of a button away. Online retail is all set to touch US$1.3-trillion in worldwide sales this year. From meagre single digit market shares just a few years ago, ecommerce now boasts more than 15% of the total retail market share in the UK and a 12.7% share in the US.

Ease of shopping, secure payments infrastructure, improved shipping and delivery, and most importantly, the prominence of the internet as a preferred medium for this generation are all key factors that have contributed to the growth of ecommerce over the years. However, this success attribution is not a one way process. While ecommerce owes a lot to various external factors for its growth and prominence, it has also touched millions of lives, transforming them along the way.

Here’s my pick of three ecommerce companies that enabled a completely new way of doing business and blazed trails for others to follow. I like to call these “enablecommerce” companies.

TaoBao and its winning formula for differently-abled merchants

Western ecommerce sites are often accused of being exclusive — places that exclude people with disabilities. Whether it is as sellers or buyers, the differently abled have little or no opportunities in the world of ecommerce. Forget about starting your own business, even getting basic employment opportunities is often an uphill task for many such individuals.

This bias against the disabled is even stronger in oriental cultures like China. Going against this tide of negativity, Chinese ecommerce giant TaoBao owned by the Alibaba Group, actively fosters entrepreneurship by reaching out to people with disabilities and training them to sell online. TaoBao has tied up with a Shanghai based NGO to offer ecommerce and graphic design training to hearing impaired students. They have also taken on board people suffering from the “Porcelain Doll” or brittle bones syndrome as customer care representatives.

Not only does it offer training, it also offers free resources to these individuals to set up store and succeed.

TaoBao Hearing Impaired vendor


Sun Xia is a 53-year-old hearing impaired woman who received RMB 10,000 and a computer, over and above her ecommerce training from TaoBao over seven years ago. Today, she runs a successful clothing retail store for older women on TaoBao and makes over RMB 14 Million a year.

Takeaway: The internet is a huge leveller for people with all kinds of skill sets. With screen reading software, braille keyboards, voice based keyboards and more, disabled individuals can now compete on an equal footing with their able-bodied counterparts. Ecommerce companies are uniquely positioned to leverage the benefits of technology and give back to their communities.

A programme along the lines of what TaoBao has may be ambitious for a small online retailer. However something along the same lines but on a smaller scale would be a great investment in the long run. Not only will your company earn brownie points from customers as a socially responsible retailer, you also stand to earn commissions on the sales made by these differently abled merchants on your site. That’s a win-win!

SnapScan transforms street selling in Cape Town

One of the great things that South Africa has going for it, is the amazing pace at which smartphone usage has been adopted by the general population. According to McKinsey Global, at least 63% of urban South Africans have internet enabled mobile phones. Riding on this wave of mobility, mobile commerce has been transforming the way South Africans buy, sell and pay. Among their many uses, smartphones have popularized m-commerce in the country. Leading the pack of mobile payment solutions is SnapScan.

Snapscan Big Issue2

Unlike the complex mobile payment apps in the western world led by Apple Pay and Google Wallet, SnapScan needs no special POS equipment, just a unique QR code per seller. Sellers display these QR codes at the cash register which are scanned by buyers using the SnapScan app on their mobile phones. Buyers confirm payment with a unique PIN or their own fingerprint.

Though it started out with large retail partners, SnapScan now allows even street vendors with no bank accounts to accept payments via the app. The merchant receives a voucher code at the end of the day showing all the transactions made with the app which he can hand over at the nearest Spar (a grocery retail chain) outlet in exchange for cash. It charges no fees to buyers for using the app, while seller fees are much lower than the average credit card fees charged by banks.

The sheer simplicity and convenience of the app has resulted in over 10,000 stores across South Africa using SnapScan today. Its runaway success and direct applicability in business won SnapScan the MTN App of the Year Award in 2013.

Takeaway: SnapScan’s out-of-the-box payments solution enabled even the smallest of merchants to come on board and use their app. The fact that merchants pay SnapScan a small transaction fee for every transaction makes the effort of broad-basing their audience completely worthwhile from an ROI perspective. Simple, viral and superbly impactful.

Cloud-Based platforms break down barriers to setting up ecommerce stores

Setting up your own ecommerce store typically involves a bunch of expenses including buying a domain name, paying for hosting your site online, paying for an ecommerce platform or at least a shopping cart plug-in, the list is endless.

Open-source ecommerce platforms such as Magento allow would-be entrepreneurs to save on a significant cost by allowing them to download the source code of their ecommerce store for free. They also typically offer a variety of templates and plug-ins to jazz up your online store. However, even in this scenario, a user would still have to invest in hosting the site somewhere, get professional designers and web developers to build the site from ground up and so on.

For high volume retailers or even startups of some size, this is a piece of cakewalk with platforms such as Shopify, which integrates multichannel (including social media and physical POS systems) and multi-device marketplaces painlessly.

For those who are starting out with online retailing, or not quite at the “enterprise-grade” sales level yet, the availability of fully hosted cloud based ecommerce platforms like PrestaShop and Spaces is a windfall. It is now possible, technically simple and hassle-free to set up an ecommerce store from anywhere in the world with landing pages, payment processing capabilities and no upfront costs.

The strong open source developer communities ensures that there’s always a way of troubleshooting or upgrading your new site for absolutely no cost. Besides its community, PrestaShop equips wannabe entrepreneurs with free ecommerce training to build and run successful businesses online.

Takeaway: All of the ecommerce businesses discussed here are SaaS-based online business “enablers” – sort of like an ecommerce business that helps other ecommerce businesses. Typically, most SaaS products depend on subscription fees for survival. These platforms show it does not always have to be so. By distributing their flagship products for absolutely free, they help build thousands of new businesses which might otherwise have been unable to get started.

Both PrestaShop Cloud and Spaces offer the same capabilities as their regular ecommerce platform with their “free” versions and have different models for charging users later (Prestashop for premium add-ons/upgrades and Spaces for sales over a set amount). This means they build in a stable revenue stream for themselves in the long run. Not only do they enable entrepreneurship, they are an example for other SaaS businesses to build sustainable operating models.

In conclusion

Ecommerce has the power to transform lives not just through pure capitalism, but by blending a dash of social responsibility with technological support. While it’s a path open to everyone, very few choose to embrace the power of ecommerce as an enabler to communities and businesses. What would you choose?

Image: Beth Jusino via Flickr.



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