Wed | Jan 26, 2022

ENDS to expand after tweaks to resolve glitches

Published:Friday | April 16, 2021 | 12:16 AMNeville Graham - Business Reporter

W ith more than two thousand participating companies so far, the e-commerce platform that kept food companies and other retailers connected to customers during the three-week soft lockdown to bend the COVID curve, is soon to broaden its footprint...

W ith more than two thousand participating companies so far, the e-commerce platform that kept food companies and other retailers connected to customers during the three-week soft lockdown to bend the COVID curve, is soon to broaden its footprint.

But first, its providers want to iron out the glitches that manifested during the Easter test run.

The e-Commerce National Delivery System, branded as ENDS, had its pilot launch on March 27 in Portmore, and was extended to the two main cities, Kingston and Montego Bay, on April 3.

Although the PSOJ team is still reviewing the data on usage of the platform under the lockdown, the plans for a wider roll-out are proceeding on a more confident track, following positive feedback from the companies registered on ENDS.

Early feedback also indicates that the platform has led to new business partnerships.

ENDS was developed as a private-public initiative of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, PSOJ, and government agencies, and was designed as a trading conduit that would take the logistical needs of small businesses into consideration, many of which had limited or no e-commerce presence. For the latter group, there was ‘WeShop’ provided by tech company WiPay through the platform, as well as similar conduits facilitated by the banks through their logistics partners.

Payment for orders placed by customers through ENDS are done via credit and debit cards and top-up vouchers.

“It was definitely a lifeline for us. We got involved on the second week after we heard of the roll-out in Portmore. We proactively put things in place so that once they said ‘Kingston’ we just went ahead,” said Gariel Ferguson, owner of the Rib Kage Grill, one of the 70 restaurants on the platform.

Senator Matthew Samuda, minister of state in the Ministry of National Security, and spokesman for the ENDS project, said, to date, the platform has enabled over 2,100 Jamaican ventures that would otherwise be losing income in a lockdown, to earn throughout instead.

“The platform provides businesses of various sizes the ability to utilise an online storefront, payment, and delivery solution to facilitate business continuity during the curfew hours instituted to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Samuda said this week.

Project lead for ENDS, Larren Peart, says the PSOJ team is still to assess the level of business traffic that flowed through the platform in the test runs.

“The compilation of the data has not yet been done, but in speaking with a few of the delivery service providers across the regions, on average, the busiest days for orders were Fridays and Saturdays, and the times were 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” he told the Financial Gleaner.

The opening weekend had 16 vendors, 17 small businesses and nine quick-service providers on board, said Samuda. Since then, supermarkets and pharmacies have been added to the platform, and negotiations are under way with players from other industries to strengthen the network of goods offered, the state minister said.

For independent restaurants like Rib Kage that depend on consistent customer flow to buttress thin margins, the COVID restrictions have taken a real toll on business. ENDS saved the company from having to book even more losses over the Easter, its owners said.

“The truth is that most restaurants operate on the brink, because a restaurant is a passion project, with most of us operating in the 4-5 per cent profit margin area,” said Ferguson.

Rib Kage introduced a takeout service last year, due to restrictions on in-person dining, with outfits like 7Krave and Cutdiline as delivery partners; so, it was well positioned to leverage business through the ENDS platform when the e-commerce conduit went live.

“With a three-weekend lockdown, most restaurants wouldn’t be able to survive at all, and knowing it was coming was why we made a move, and it worked out for us,” Ferguson said.

The other companies contacted by the Financial Gleaner regarding their experience with ENDS were reluctant to disclose the amount of business the platform generated for them, but Rib Kage said it did around 80 per cent of normal sales before the advent of COVID.

Peart, as PSOJ project lead, was even more cautious than the businesses in offering up figures.

“This is sensitive data for each of the companies. On average, however, both vendors and other businesses have expressed their gratitude for the ability to ease their overhead charges or to be able to earn during the period of curfew,” he said.

“We can, however, confirm that there have been new business-to-business relations formed; for example, between delivery-service providers and businesses of all sizes.”

ENDS is expected to become a permanent fixture in the ‘new normal’ Jamaica that assumes the migration to online services, trading and transactions will continue.

There’s no cost to businesses and couriers to sign up to the platform, but it’s unclear what changes will occur post pandemic.

Samuda said the full roll-out of ENDS will be “a huge logistical undertaking,” but that the Government intended to learn from the pilot and make the registration process, along with the validation of applicants, as seamless as possible.

“COVID-19 has been the unfortunate catalyst to this step, but we must accept that this is the way of the future. It is unlikely that these advances will be subject to regression,” said Samuda.

“A post-COVID Jamaica will definitely see an increase in the delivery aspect of our economy, which will be additionally bolstered by a resurgent tourism industry,” he said.