Shop 'til you drop - CNBC Africa

Shop 'til you drop

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Chris Bishop

If the wise heads of the World Retail Congress, which held its first event in Africa this week, the continent has less than ten years to sew up what could be one of the most lucrative markets in the world.

Africa is opening up for the retail business apace. More people are flocking to the cities of the continent; they are better educated and paid. They want the best and the want it now, according to Paul Disberry, the head of retail operations and international for South African retail giants, Woolworths. Half of the continent is aged under 20, compared to 28 percent in China, and they are savvy spenders.  They have seen the fashion shows and the food programmes on line and want only the best.

This means it is an increasingly tough market for the big retailers - a market that is in danger of being carved up by the aggressive traders from the emerging nations of Brazil, China and India.  They are here and they are hungry with vast financial muscle behind them.  

One big advantage, the big retailers of South African have, is that their country is still seen as the springboard into Africa. They also have networks and a measure of infrastructure in the continent.

But the word at the congress is that these advantages are steadily being eroded and African retailers are falling behind.

“We need to pick up the pace,” says Disberry.

The feeling among the experts is that it will be a mere 10 years before the retail giants of Europe pile in to a market worth billions of dollars. Sure it is a tricky market, but it is likely to be a lucrative one for those who get it right.

Maybe it is time for African retailers to blow the consequences and launch themselves headlong into the continent’s retail space.  Surely, it would be better to try and lose than stay at home and watch retailers from the other side of the world clean up.

At the congress there were many Africa optimists prepared to do just that. They have a big and important job on their hands and at stake is the future of the African retail industry.

They all have a long way to go.

One retailer told of how once on an African street corner, he showed a bunch of children a picture of Colonel Sanders.

“Do you know who this guy is? Because I am bringing him to your country,” says the retailer.

“Ah, Nelson Mandela,” shot back the reply from the street corner.

Maybe brand recognition is the first battle.

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