BRING SANTA BACK

How the largest online retailer turned South Africans into Christmas Grinches

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

It was the night before Christmas, and I had finally given up. I had clicked refresh over and over, and still there was no change on the delivery page: my Christmas gifts would only arrive Feb. 2.

I am one of a slew of takealot.com customers who found themselves gripped with anxiety over delivery difficulties this holiday season. So confident was South Africa’s largest online retailer of its Christmas deliveries that its seasonal marketing campaign was all about how it would be able to give Santa Claus a “break” this year—the North Pole had moved to their warehouse. Customers were thrilled at first, but many became ridden with angst as the awaited the arrival of their orders.

Takealot.com was launched in June 2011 after businessman Kim Reid and venture capital investor Tiger Global acquired a smaller e-commerce platform. The acquisition of food service company Mr. Delivery in 2014 and online retail competitor kalahari.com saw Takealot become South Africa’s main e-commerce player.

With a large delivery network, a vast supplier list, and a growing customer base, Takealot has become arguably the best online shopping platform in the country. Just a few weeks ago, it had a bumper weekend bringing their version of America’s Black Friday sales to South African customers.

Johannesburg mother Paulina French has relied on takelot.com for a number of holiday purchases this year and got in early to avoid the rush, buying her daughters’ gifts on Dec. 1. She was so confident, she says, that she nearly forgot about her purchase until she received a message from the retailer on Dec. 20 saying the book she bought for her 12-year-old was out of stock.

French was able to find the book in a store after all, but things got worse when the DVD she purchased for her nine-year-old was delivered to the wrong house on Dec. 24—correcting the error would mean the gift would only be delivered two days after Christmas. She now has to have a delicate conversation with her younger daughter about why there would be gift missing from her Christmas stocking.

“It’s so frustrating,” she says. “There’s this level of shock because you can’t believe it’s happening. It’s not what is expected of them.” French says she tried every means of communication the company made available to her, but nothing seemed to work. Her tweets, emails and Facebook messages went unanswered.

Takealot allows buyers to track their deliveries online: a little truck emblem moves from the warehouse to delivery. When progress was slow, the call center found itself inundated. Agents responded to email queries from Quartz in the early hours of Friday (Dec. 23) morning, and before that to email on Dec. 21 and 22. I called a few times too, until one call center agent eventually said that the private courier services to whom they had outsourced delivery were unlikely to deliver over the Christmas weekend or on Monday’s (Dec. 26) public holiday.

A screengrab of the author's online order.
A Christmas order, in February. (Screengrab)

Some customers living in Cape Town went straight to the warehouse to pick up their own orders, fed up with courier services. But for many, it was simply too late and customer after customer wrote one-star reviews of Takealot’s customer service on online forums.

“While inevitably order volumes are high in the run up to the festive season, any late deliveries are exceptions to the norm and reported delays are being addressed as quickly as possible by our dedicated customer service team, directly with any affected customers,” spokeswoman Julie-Anne Walsh said in an email to Quartz.

Some customers report getting their gifts in the nick of time. Like French, I was not so lucky. Instead I found myself racing through a mall, overspending on Christmas gifts after I was forced to cancel my order late on Friday afternoon. The shopping frenzy was exactly what I was trying to avoid when I placed my order on Dec. 20 (the website’s order process assured me it would arrive on time before I clicked buy).

The smugness I wrapped myself in over my easy purchase was replaced with the limping from a toe stubbed by a shopping cart. I found myself in the chaos of last-minute purchases, exacerbated by empty shelves, exhausted sales assistants and carols playing on repeat. When at last each niece and nephew had their gift and the stores closed behind me, I realized that I’d forgotten one of the key ingredients of a successful Christmas day: the turkey. Customers like me who were burned by this sort of Christmas experience could be unlikely to trust the online retailer with significant orders next year. Perhaps I’ll try Takealot again next Christmas, but the company will have to do some damage control before then.

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