On December 8, 2020, WhatsApp announced the global launch of its “Carts” feature, which aims to optimise the online shopping experience. According to the company, WhatsApp Carts is supposed to work with WhatsApp Catalogues, a feature that the company launched for its Business Account users last year.
How does it work?
Imagine a shopping cart but on your phone. Business account users are given the option to set up a catalogue for their products. If they have chosen to avail that option, their catalogues are then made available to buyers as a menu. Simply go to shopping button icon () next to the name of the business account in their profiles, scroll through the options available, and drop what you need in your cart. The order is considered final when the seller confirms it.
The company hopes that the feature will cut down on the extensive back and forth between the seller and buyer during a transaction, and will streamline the process of order inquiries, request management, and completing sales.
As the world quickly digitises, it is becoming abundantly clear that WhatsApp aims to transition from a messaging service to a digital shopping destination. The company has announced an ambitious plan of expanding and investing in new features to facilitate online businesses, and is currently in the very early stages of establishing an in-app payment system. In its largest market, India, WhatsApp launched the in-app payment feature in 2018 and currently awaits regulatory approval. And although its expansion hit a speed bump when the Central Bank in Brazil was less than supportive, suspending the feature just one month after its launch, the company is hopeful that they could come to agreement of a renegotiated deal.
Now, what happens to Pakistan?
Small home-based businesses have become increasingly active on the social media landscape of the country; transactions are taking place on not only WhatsApp, but Facebook and Instagram as well. What is more, the country is witnessing increasing female participation in the economic activity taking place in digital spaces, as women entrepreneurs find themselves more comfortable accessing online markets than physical ones. This is evident from platforms like Sheops, established to facilitate small women owned businesses.
However, despite the immense potential – both economic and social – it appears that the country has a long way to go before it can maximise the benefits that WhatsApp appears to be offering.
For one thing, WhatsApp is still viewed as primarily a messaging app in the country, with several small business owners we spoke to preferring to conduct their businesses on Instagram instead.
Ifra, a baker based in Lahore, said she prefers Instagram over WhatsApp for interacting with her clientele. Regarding WhatsApp Business accounts she said, “I don’t yet have a WhatsApp Business account, mostly because I don’t want to put my number out there, I tried that [but] got creeps sending [me] messages on WhatsApp. And I don’t know much except automated message replies and they show some sort of stats but I never really got into it.”
Amn Nasir, who operates a hand printed Sari business, Shahkar by Adila, had similar views. When asked why she would rather work on Instagram over WhatsApp Business, she said, “We started our business on Instagram, have saved quick replies etc on Instagram, all pictures for reference are there so it’s easier to keep all orders there. We add clients to close friends which helps us keep track of who has placed an order with us. We also have multiple people look at client conversations etc so it is easier to do it via Instagram since it can be accessed on multiple phones.”
Unsurprisingly then, they are unaware of all these features that WhatsApp now has on offer. Bismah, another baker based in Lahore who operates her business through her instagram @bismahsbakeshop, also expressed the discomfort that comes from sharing her number and says she does not enjoy WhatsApp’s interface. She went on to add, “I don’t know what features it [WhatsApp Business] offers but my customers need to be able to see my photos of my products.”
But even if home-based business owners are provided the knowledge to optimise their sales, it appears that the environment simply is not conducive.
The lack of public and private initiatives to promote awareness regarding online avenues for economic growth is only a small indication of a larger problem regarding the situation of digital economics in the country. At a time when cash is on the way out in several countries, it continues to be the preferred mode of transaction for many. Complex bureaucratic regulations have hindered the growth of peer-to-peer payments with global giants like Paypal still not available in Pakistan. And online shopping continues to be viewed with a certain sense of scepticism.
However, during the lockdowns being put in place due to the spread of COVID-19, it appears that things might finally be beginning to change.
Daraz, an online marketplace and logistics company, curated Pakistan’s first E-commerce Index, and the findings appear to be positive. According to the Index, since the lockdown, the demand for fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) doubled, and is expected to make upto 70 percent of total demand. Carrefour Pakistan Country Manager, Jean Marc Dumont, claimed that since the lockdown, customers are engaged in a more cautious shopping experience; online orders have seen a spike, and even in-store shoppers are much likelier to use cashless options than they were in a pre-pandemic world.
It appears that consumers are now recognising online shopping as a reliable alternative to physically visiting stores and suppliers are hopeful that this transition will sustain itself even after the pandemic is over. According to Noman Aziz from JS Bank, the traffic has shifted from branches to online JS Wallet, with payments rising through the latter by 10-12 percent. Mudassar Aqil, the President of Telenor Microfinance Bank, has also encouraged customers to shift to digital payments during these times.
Unhelpful policy and a reluctant attitude to transition to digital economic spaces has left the country struggling as the world continues to innovate. Right across the border, as WhatsApp tests out its brand new economic features, Pakistan still awaits the global economic giant to recognise the market it offers.
But in the current hardship, there might be an opportunity for the Pakistan Government. Digital economics spaces are becoming increasingly competitive with tech giants like Facebook and Amazon fighting to control as much of the market as possible. Access to the internet and COVID-19 lockdowns have caused buyers as well as sellers to transition online who are looking for the easiest ways to deal with one another. It is now up to the Pakistani government to lobby for the potential that the Pakistani market offers to these global companies. Greater access to the internet, a more open-minded approach and policies for digital payments, and a supportive environment for small-business owners can greatly help optimise the potential that exists for digital economics in Pakistan.
Image Credits: The Verge