If you ever got the impression that running a profitable online store in Zimbabwe is virtually impossible, that may only be because the internet and the media have raised your expectations of what is possible to unrealistic levels. The internet is awash with tall tales that convince hopefuls that making millions online is a walk in the park. Starting and running a successful online shop actually requires almost as much, if not more, effort as running a conventional physical store.

Zimbabweans spend thousands of (USD) dollars every month on the internet, just look at the popularity of Visas and Mastercards even during this currency crisis. Therefore failed online venturers can no longer hide behind the weak assertion that we do not shop online

There are several factors that will influence your chances of successfully selling your wares online but today I will focus on product categories. Not everything can be successfully sold online, especially in Zimbabwe. A lot of entrepreneurs have in the past assumed that the main reason people shop online is ‘convenience’ (a nicer way of saying they think we are all secretly lazy).Based on this belief, some have simply tried to replicate the ordinary grocery shop online with disappointing results.

1. Customised products

By selling customized goods you are effectively eliminating your main competitors: the local stores. Your customers cannot easily compare the prices of your offerings with someone else’s. This way you have more flexibility in your pricing. The delivery delay is also more palatable for your clients if what you offer is unique, after all mainstream retailers do not customize their goods. In addition a website can be designed to make customizations easier, intuitive and far more efficient than any over the counter alternative could.

Examples of goods which can be customized include not only the usual like t-shirts and pottery but also executive notebooks, diaries and corporate wear.

2. Products with a high cost-weight ratio

One of the factors that significantly affect a customer’s online purchase decision is the delivery cost. If this cost is high compared with the price of your product, your customer might just as well walk into an actual shop. It therefore makes sense that some goods like memory cards, jewellery, phone batteries and ear phones that can easily absorb any delivery charges are particularly suited to be sold online.  In a country flooded with counterfeit goods sold by street vendors and China shops (shops which sell cheap Chinese goods), an online shop that guarantees original goods for its customers can win a significant market share.

3. Electronic  hobbyist and prototyping kits

Engineering students are usually forced to go online to purchase the parts needed for their projects and prototypes. As the number of universities and their STEM enrolments continues to increase the demand for devices such as Arduino microcontrollers is also rising. Most current businesses in the space are determined to have physical shops as their main operations with mostly poorly implemented shopping carts added to their websites as afterthoughts.

Students have already shown willingness to shop for these devices and components online where they are forced to wait several weeks for deliveries from outside the country. It therefore follows that if you set up an online shop selling these locally you will be targeting a pre-existing and severely underserved market. In addition you will have several advantages over international retailers some of which include the cutting down of delivery times and hopefully doing away with the need for your customers to seek foreign currency to fund their credit cards.

4. Frequently imported high-value goods

A significant portion of Zimbabwe’s import transactions are conducted by individuals and almost all of these take place online. This further drives home my point that Zimbabweans are as technology savvy as the rest of the world. So if Zimbabweans are buying large quantities of specific products such as solar equipment using shopping sites such as Alibaba.com and are then forced to endure the weeks long delivery waits then it stands to reason that bringing these products closer to home makes excellent business sense. You will not only be reducing the wait times but you will also be handling the logistics and anxiety that comes with bringing in goods through ZIMRA territory. This kind of convenience is something I am sure that the current crop of e-importers will be able to appreciate.

5. Bulky products

As I have mentioned before, an online store’s biggest competitors and threats to growth are the shops already near its customers. However there are certain goods that are particularly suited for being sold online despite them not being what typically comes to mind when we are talking about online shopping. I am talking about huge bulky (and sometimes dirty) stuff that has to be (usually) delivered by someone else anyway. An example is L.P Gas; it is now one of the most used fuel sources in the country. However the gas tank is very heavy even when empty and is for the most part shunned in public transportation for safety reasons. You could deliver gas to people’s homes without them ever having to leave their houses.

There are other even more wilder possibilities out there. People doing home improvements could order sand, bricks and other building material online. There is no need for firewood and charcoal to be sold by roadsides, these are things that I would gladly order over my phone and get someone else to deliver them to me.

6. Awkward purchases

The experience of purchasing certain products over the counter is so uncomfortable for some people that they prefer to do without. The list of possibilities is almost endless:  you can just use your own personal experiences as inspiration.

At the end of the day if you are planning to sell online, you do not want to compete directly with goods that are easily available in stores that are already frequented by your potential customers. This is mainly because online shopping depends on deliveries that cost money and take time, so you will be basically marketing yourself as the more expensive option with the added delivery delays. This is a hard sell if your customers can instead just walk into any shop in town and come out carrying their stuff in minutes.