Shoppers can now buy everything other than alcohol and tobacco online, as long as they observe proper health and safety protocols when doing so.
Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition Ebrahim Patel – who has come under fire for the draconian and often illogical restrictions placed on online as well as conventional retailing – released new Level 4 lockdown regulations on Thursday.
The new regulations mean consumers are now free to buy furniture, gym equipment, clothing and pretty much whatever else they might wish to online. There has however been no word on the lifting or easing of restrictions on the sale of liquor and tobacco products.
The reopening of e-commerce comes with the condition that online retailers adhere to appropriate health and safety protocols for the safety of their staff and consumers.
Patel says greater levels of e-commerce can introduce increased health risks through increased movement of courier and delivery service personnel, and that “health and safety protocols are important to mitigate this risk”.
The precautions are extensive.
E-commerce consumers have been asked to wear cloth masks or a homemade item that covers the nose and mouth when they receive their deliveries. They are also encouraged to keep at least one and a half metres away from courier and delivery personnel.
E-commerce players will also have to employ safety officers, which is not a common position in the retail sector.
“Designated and adequately trained health and safety officers must take each employee’s temperatures using appropriate equipment or instruments at the start of a shift and every four hours after the shift commences,” says Patel.
All courier and delivery personnel are also required to have their own hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes, which must be refilled daily. The minister has also requested that records of the temperatures of each employee be kept.
Online retailers welcome the news
In the wake of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, KwaZulu-Natal online fashion store Planet54.com repurposed its entire e-commerce shopping platform to provide South Africans with wholesale-priced food and essential items delivered for a minimal cost anywhere in the country.
Shahil Maharaj, Planet54.com director, expressed his relief when the announcement was made.
“It was really tough selling only portions of our stockholding while the other stock just aged,” Maharaj says.
He says having to change his business model to accommodate Covid-19 came with challenges.
“I tried to go supermarkets, but it has become so frustrating standing in long lines putting myself at risk. So now we are piloting same-day and next-day deliveries for essentials in the Durban areas. Other major cities are in the pipeline to roll out in the next few months.”
But it was a blessing in disguise, he says.
“The one good thing that has come out of lockdown for planet54 is that we were forced to move into essentials to survive and now it has become a part of our offering to customers.”
Business body welcomes the news
Speaking on behalf of Business for South Africa, Martin Kingston welcomed the resumption of most e-commerce activity
He says the amendments are in line with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s commitment to progressively reopen the economy.
Jobs will be saved and lives improved.
“This decision by the minister shows a welcome willingness to respond to input by business and a commitment to continuously improve the regulations governing business based on the best evidence available,” says Kingston.
“As these amendments quite rightly say, e-commerce is a ‘critical enabler’ of a more open economy; it reduces the density of consumers in retail spaces, allowing for social distancing; it can accelerate innovation; and it can support local manufacturing and increase access to goods by small business in the informal market.”
He adds: “As a business we will continue engaging with government to reiterate our call for the swift easing of economic restrictions accompanied by stringent health and hygiene measures in the workplace, public transport, public services and public spaces, and at all times – where practical – to limit the movement of people.”
Do people have money to spend?
The national lockdown has walloped most businesses. As a result, many are subjecting employees to pay cuts in the hope that they won’t have to retrench people, while some have already started with the retrenchment process.
This means many households will be feeling the pinch in the months to come, if they haven’t already.
Retail analyst Chris Gilmour says he doubts that consumers “have enough money” to spend right now because of the numerous job cuts.