By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A major Bahamian hardware retailer yesterday voiced “frustration” that it has not been permitted to serve clients via an e-commerce platform it invested “tens of thousands of dollars” in developing.
Brent Burrows, CBS Bahamas (Commonwealth Building Supplies) e-commerce manager, urged the government to “embrace” such technology as the solution to continuing some economic activity during the COVID-19 pandemic while still respecting the necessary health protocols.
Explaining that CBS Bahamas had developed a fully integrated online shopping and payment solution, he told Tribune Business that purchases and orders can be fulfilled and delivered without staff and drivers having any contact with each other or the end-customer.
Mr Burrows said the retailer had been “overwhelmed” with inquiries for electrical, plumbing, cleaning and other household goods from both contractors and the general public, but had not been able to gain a response either way from the government to its e-commerce launch request despite sending numerous letters, e-mails and other contacts.
He described the lack of reply as “a bit discouraging” given the Minnis administration’s purported focus on technology, and said the process of applying for exemptions from the Emergency Powers Order - how and to whom - was unclear.
Mr Burrows, in a March 26 letter to both the Prime Minister and then-police commissioner, Anthony Ferguson, said CBS Bahamas’ e-commerce platform was “ready to go” and “not some haphazard attempt to create a makeshift order system using What’s App”.
He explained: “This is a fully-functioning and professional e-commerce platform that we’ve invested a lot of money and resources into developing over the past 12 months. As far as we know, we are the only large-scale retailer able to offer a full-functioning, complete and fully-integrated online shopping experience.
“This new e-commerce website allows the consumer to access our entire catalogue from the safety and comfort of their home, while also allowing them to make payment via credit card directly on the website. We’re able to deliver any orders/packages ‘next-day’ using a local courier service that we’ve enlisted (Mutru242).”
Pledging that all COVID-19 health protocols will be adhered to, Mr Burrows added: “We are able to run this operation with just three staff on hand. These persons will never have direct contact with one another throughout the entire order fulfillment/delivery process.
“Our deliveries are made to the ‘doorstep’, which enables the delivery driver to avoid any sort of direct contact with the end consumer. Additionally, we are able to sanitise packages throughout the process to further prohibit the spread of germs.”
And, emphasising that the demand is there, he said: “Since the start of the 24-hour lockdown we have been overwhelmed with requests for emergency supplies by both contractors and homeowners. Particularly plumbing and electrical materials.”
Mr Burrows yesterday said it was “frustrating not to have heard anything back at all” despite contacting the Prime Minister’s Office, which is the Competent Authority for all matters relating to the COVID-19 emergency, as well as the Attorney General’s Office and police commissioner.
“It would be better if the Government embraces that technology,” he told Tribune Business, adding that the e-commerce service would also generate “a bit of cash flow to keep things going because it looks like it [the lockdown] is going to be extended out for a period here”.
“It’s a bit discouraging because we have yet to receive any sort of acknowledgement or response,” Mr Burrows said of CBS Bahamas’ request. “Even more disappointing is the fact that, from what I can tell, there is no official communication or guideline on exactly how businesses should even go about this process requesting permission from the ‘competent authority’.
“We have a new e-commerce system that we’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into developing over the past 18 months, and while it wasn’t specifically designed for a time such as this, it’s now that this technology can truly shine.
“The Bahamian consumer can have access to our entire catalogue, over 35,000 products, available for easy online shopping and next day door-to-door delivery. The ordering, payment, and invoicing process is completely automated and tied into our inventory system,” he added.
“Every day our customer service team gets barraged non-stop with inquiries from customers looking for essential or emergency repair items. Of course we’ve been getting requests for cleaning and disinfecting products, but in addition we’ve been getting requests for a lot of plumbing parts and a lot of electrical supplies. Another big interest has been door locks and other security products.”
Mr Burrows said it was “a bit disheartening” that CBS Bahamas was seemingly being ignored despite the demand and the fact that the Prime Minister had just urged food retailers to develop a similar online ordering system.
“Even if the answer is a firm ‘no’, just simply reply and tell us that so we can go about our continuity planning,” he added, while disclosing he had been “surprised by how much demand there is” for hardware and home improvements products.