When your business is based on the nationwide delivery of alcohol to homes, the banning of liquor sales, for several months, during the COVID-19 pandemic, should signal the death of your enterprise. To emerge from a reality like this, with more than 160 000 new customers, and having needed to employ more staff, is truly remarkable.
For Vincent Viviers and Enrico Ferigolli, founders and joint CEOs of Bottles, the nightmare became real only a few short months after the entrepreneurs walked away as winners of the ‘Best Consumer App’ category in the 2019 MTN Business App of the Year Awards.
After three years of operation, South Africa’s first on-demand liquor delivery app was facing a very real threat. The incomes and the livelihoods of 18 employees was on the line.
However, due to their positive business relationship with major retailer, Pick n Pay, and some quick footwork, the business pivoted almost overnight. Bottles changed from an app that focused on delivering alcoholic beverages, to re-emerge as an on-demand ‘grocery essentials app’, offering same-day service to customers.
Business boomed, and jobs were saved.
However, as order volumes tripled in just days, the ingenuity of the founders was challenged. Because of the pandemic, they had to devise plans to train store teams remotely, whilst on-the-job. This was during an exceptionally busy period when Bottles’ footprint had doubled.
“At the beginning, our user experience did not account for the complexity of orders and the unavailability of some brands of groceries. In a matter of days, we had to build ‘stock substitution’ functionality into our app – enabling users to choose replacement brands for missing items,” says Ferigolli.
Now, even though ‘Level 2 Lockdown’ has almost returned things to normal, groceries have remained on the Bottles order list. This COVID-19 story has a happy ending, with the company more than doubling its reach and trebling orders.
Reflecting on their business journey, “In the beginning it was really about shaking up a legacy industry where technology was virtually absent,” says Viviers, who adds that the idea for Bottles came about when the founders were at a braai. They had finished their drinks and wondered why there wasn’t an app they could use to get more drinks delivered.
“Then,” adds Ferigolli, “we looked at wine apps only to find that, although users could review wines, there was no functionality that would enable the user to order a bottle.” This spurred their conviction that it was time for things to change.
Fortunately, with Viviers having a Business Science (Hon) degree in Marketing, and past experience in retail as well as working at a major global tech company, and Ferigolli’s digital and business experience in the creative media industry, these complementary skills made them ideal partners.
“When we launched in 2016, Bottles was the first app of its kind – and the only on-demand delivery app in SA. We took a massive step forward in 2018 when we partnered with Pick n Pay Liquor stores, leveraging their chain of more than 50 outlets across the country,” says Viviers.
Although more food and delivery apps have made their appearance on mobiles, Bottles is firmly entrenched in the minds of its users. Bottles has consistently been ranked within the top 10 apps in the Food and Drink category and is rated within the top 50 apps overall.
“We are proud to now be a grocery and liquor delivery app. We have more than 160,000 new registered users and have grown by 600% year-on-year, in both sales and turnover terms since March 2020. Perhaps the most important thing is that we have hired another 14 people, taking our numbers to 32, and have also managed to create opportunities for over 200 third-party delivery driver-partners,” says Ferigolli.
When it comes to building a business, and then not only surviving but thriving in a market filled with competition and the restrictions of a lockdown, the partners say there is no substitute for being able to rely on each other and the people within the team.
“Our team has been working remotely since the beginning of lockdown with great results, showing us that it is possible to run a business efficiently in this way.”
“This trust develops into resilience when things get tough. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. The cliché is true…business is all about adapting and turning challenges into opportunities. Then, partnerships and agility play their parts in building success.”
Kholo Magagane, Head of Marketing at MTN SA Business, says that the Bottles success story perfectly demonstrates one of the biggest strengths of a digitally-based service company.
“When changes have to be made quickly, there is generally little need to compensate for major investments in brick and mortar. Operating digitally means that operational efforts can be concentrated in areas that will bring results.”
“And we continue to see this type of agility yielding results for many of the other app developers that have participated in our annual MTN Business App of the Year Awards over the years. We are proud that we have been able to be a part of the Bottles journey, and that we are in the fortunate position to continue encouraging entrepreneurs to explore, develop and create business opportunities that meet the needs of South Africans,” concludes Magagane.
This year marks the ninth edition of the MTN Business App of the Year Awards. It is aimed not only at encouraging the efforts of local developers but at further building an industry that will contribute to rebuilding the SA economy.
The overall winner (or winning team) of the 2020 MTN Business App of the Year Award will receive a trip to a tech-related destination valued at R 200 000.
To enter, app developers can submit their entries before 29 September 2020 by going to appoftheday.co.za. The awards ceremony will be livestreamed on 29 October 2020.
Updates on the competition will be posted to @MTNBusinessZA on Twitter. Anyone interested in participating in the conversation can follow #mtnappawards.