by ORiSA. With 260 stores across South Africa, family-owned business Cape Union Mart is well-established in local mall culture, given it has been around since 1933. But the group, that includes Keedo (by recent acquisition), K-Way, Old Khaki, Poetry and Tread + Miller, is earning respect for its digital prowess. Amanda Herson, director of ecommerce, speaks about the group’s omnichannel future.

Cape Union Mart Mall of Africa June 2017
Cape Union Mart, Mall of Africa.

Online Retail in South Africa: How do you make the magic of Cape Union Stores live online?
Amanda Herson: We continually leverage technology, as it improves, to get even better. We’re implementing small amounts of artificial intelligence to add that extra layer of magic online so every customer feels that the site was specially created for them. What’s important to us is that our customers feel visible and cared for.

We always talk about the five senses when we talk about our brand, Poetry. When someone comes into the store, it must smell beautiful, the music must work, and it must feel like walking into a home. Translating this online is not easy, but thinking mobile-first makes you far more selective about what you show the customer because you must make tough decisions about what is essential, and what will help that customer’s journey.

A fundamental improvement during the past 12 months is photography. We’ve started to include far more images and a lot more video on our website. Poetry recently started shooting on models. Reviews are another fantastic addition to our website. We want the good and the bad. Negative reviews often help customers more than good reviews.

ORiSA: When there’s so much to do, how do you decide on what to do first?
AH: It’s a challenge, but thinking mobile-first helps you focus on the essential things. We prioritise great copy. We have to provide you with the right information. In a store you can touch and feel it; online you can’t. Each of our brands has a very different type of copy — we want you to experience the brand through the copy, and again through the photography.

We don’t think of marketing any more as online vs offline. It’s omnichannel marketing, so every element that we’re thinking about in stores is in some way translated to digital. When it’s festive in-store, it must feel festive online.

We try to customise more to experiences. On the Cape Union site, you can search according to activity, because most people prefer to shop this way. Blogs are also useful, because some customers want to explore or interact with the brand, adding richness beyond the product or the shopping cart.

We are focusing on getting a single view of the customer to better understand them. It’s still a work in progress but, in the not-too-distant future, one person would see a different webpage from what another would see. This would be based on our understanding of them as a customer and their psyche.

ORiSA: Are you saying there’s a direct correlation — the better I do online, the better I’m doing overall?
AH: We are starting to see traction from our strategy, from reviews to improved photography. You can start to see spikes. We’ve done some customised pages and started to see some behaviour change. Customers want to feel like people, not a number.

ORiSA: Talking about omnichannel — how do you track and measure that what you’re learning? Does that feedback to the stores?
AH: Absolutely, and that’s the beauty of it. We try not to have separate teams and silos. We have decentralised customer service across channels, so we’ll be able to see trends across channels pretty quickly.

Leveraging your search terms is a great way to use learnings from online for your merchandising team. They’re going to pick up on trends far faster digitally than across a couple of hundred stores. Every week we have cross-functional meetings — it’s an ecommerce meeting but all the cross-functional teams share. We’re trying to change our mindset from the online team vs the store team to one omnichannel team.

ORiSA: What are the big things that stood out?
AH: First, we can see online how much new products are being researched, and exactly what customers most want to see. So, instead of putting it on its shelf in its section, where a customer has to look for it, we put it on the front table. Particularly in Poetry, our customers love to check out what’s new, so we have the same new product that features on the page, right up front in store.

Then, because of our live chat, often there are questions that customers ask online about a product that we didn’t think to provide in the description. There was one product we were selling that didn’t have batteries, and the customer got frustrated, so we gave that feedback to the merchandising team on the floor. I think online you hear a lot faster about customers’ frustrations than you do in-store.

Thirdly, if an item is out of stock online, there is a “Get notified” button, so we can quickly see when there’s massive demand for a product, and we’ve got data behind it. From stores we might get the message, “We need more jackets” — but how many? What size range? Online we know exactly: 50 customers have requested it in an extra small. Online data and analytics can improve and empower in store.

ORiSA: How do you work with data so that data becomes meaningful?
AH: Recently we started to build out our business insights team, so now we’re diving into more in-depth analysis and are building dashboards to be able to see more. We are on the path to integrate into broader business dashboards.

We are not there yet — we are very much learning, testing and trialling. It’s a constant feedback loop. I believe that, if we’re not failing, we’re not trying hard enough. We keep trying, innovating, and travelling abroad to learn more about the impact data can have on building this part of our business.

ORiSA: How do you stay ahead of the curve?
AH: There’s so much opportunity; I think we’re barely scratching the surface. There are so many amazing South African startups that are solving unique SA problems, from logistics to payment. We’re ahead of the world in some areas — you don’t see 20 payment options on international sites, but you do see this locally because there’s a need for it. I’m optimistic about the local startups and we’re working with a lot of them.

I think South Africans are ready for ecommerce. Even my grandmother gets her groceries delivered to her now. I know our penetration is much lower than the rest of the world, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t catch up.

More ORiSA stories


Online Retail in South Africa 2019 (ORiSA) is a study conducted by World Wide Worx and Platinum Seed with the support of Visa, and is endorsed by the Ecommerce Forum of Africa. is the media partner, and Heavy Chef is the learning partner for this initiative, which seeks to actively promote online shopping and the growth of online retail in South Africa. For more info, go to, or download the executive summary.

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