In-store shoppers: The new retail job trend hitting South Africa

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A picture of a bag of carrots pops up on an app and in one swift motion Yolanda Belle finds and grabs the right product, scans it with her phone, and is on to the next thing on the list.

The 24-year-old is a full-time professional shopper for OneCart, and moves through the mall with expert precision as she fulfils orders from multiple stores. She is easily identifiable by her branded shirt, knows many of the staff members, and navigates the aisles of products with surprising precision.

Unlike other e-commerce models that may ship products from warehouses, shoppers like Belle are based in retail stores themselves and buy directly as a customer would. If necessary, there is continued communication with the customer about what is available and Belle takes care to check expiration dates or whether a packet of avocados is soft.

In the case of OneCart, this is an arrangement with a variety of malls in Gauteng, Western Cape and Durban, and means that a customer can buy from several brands and only pay for one delivery.

Internationally, companies such as Amazon have embraced this model by offering shoppers flexible part-time schedules and salaries of up to $22.50 an hour. Locally, this is far rarer, yet could be an opportunity both for companies and for jobseekers looking for stable, comfortable work.

In South Africa, while e-commerce is booming, particularly this year, the use of in-store shoppers is present but limited. The Checkers Sixty60 app uses shoppers who are specifically recruited and trained for this role. A spokesperson says: “They select the products from Checkers store shelves, just as a customer would have done.” This forms part of the about 800 jobs created by the company in the past months.

There are other companies similar to OneCart, such as Delivast, which are due to launch in the future with deliveries offered in various metros including Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. Its full-service shoppers will be hired as a variety of full-time or part-time staff, and as independent contractors.

On a smaller scale, event styling and floral company Maua Blossoms pivoted into concierge shopping services during the lockdown and used entrepreneurs in that field as shoppers. Founder Masana Sangweni says: “The aim is to enrol more shoppers, especially unemployed youth, so that they can earn an income and hopefully spark an interest in starting their own concierge business.”

Operations manager Sharon Ramahala says: “There’s definitely a future for this type of work and I think it’s going to grow and expand beyond what OneCart is doing.”

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Marketing manager Vusi Zwane says they have a loyal customer base, which he puts down to the ease and convenience of ordering from several retailers for just one delivery fee. “I’d rather pay that than have all the chaos of the mall.”

Their confidence seems to be finding resonance with customers. Ramahala explains that they experienced a significant increase during the early days of the lockdown, even though this has dropped somewhat since. The number of employed shoppers, which was just under 100, has doubled in the past months.

She says that while they initially focused on hiring people with a matric certificate, the company is seeing an increase in final-year students or more qualified applicants, especially with increased job scarcity. “It’s a brilliant idea and a fantastic opportunity for up-and-coming professionals,” Ramahala says.

While Amazon, for instance, allows for a highly flexible schedule as a drawcard for its shoppers, OneCart follows a more traditional way of scheduling staff.

“They need to be a team of people that work very well under pressure, can multitask and attention to detail is key.”

Belle seems to have all these qualities down to an art form, as she quickly pays for the customer’s items with her designated card and brings them down to the OneCart kiosk in the mall where a driver is ready to deliver them. Shoppers like her are based at one mall and go through a few days of training to be qualified.

She says she enjoys her job, because “it’s like you’re shopping for yourself by shopping for someone else”. Belle was previously in another retail position and says she is interested in office or managerial work. “I think I want to embark on more experiences, not just shopping.”

Ramahala confirms that the company offers opportunities that allow shoppers to rise through the ranks.

The rise of in-store shopping allows for a different and perhaps more relatable form of e-commerce for customers, but is particularly interesting as a job opportunity.