Online shopping a steep learning curve for Cuba

by Katell ABIVEN
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A virtual store truck drives along a street in Havana on June 17, 2020

When Jorge Noris first tried online shopping, Cuban-style, the products he bought never turned up.

Like most people, the father of two living on the outskirts of Havana was seduced by the convenience of shopping over the internet.

However, Cuba's catch-up with the world of e-commerce, encouraged by its communist rulers during the coronavirus lockdown, has left many users angry.

"After a month, the store called me to ask if the order had arrived," said Noris, a 34-year-old technician. He was similarly stunned when he discovered he had to travel into the shop to be reimbursed.

Worldwide, the online food trade has been given a massive shot in the arm by the pandemic. With millions confined to their homes, online consumer activity soared by 300 percent in Italy and Spain, and 100 percent in France, according to pollsters Nielsen.

But the experience is still a novel one in Cuba where 3G mobile internet was rolled out in 2018. The local online store Tuenvio has only just launched.

Long queues outside food stores are a recurring feature of Cuban life because of shortages due to US sanctions.

Tuenvio aims to make those grim lines a thing of the past. However, many online consumers are now lining up outside stores to file a complaint or recover missing products.

- 'Crisis solution' -

On television, President Miguel Diaz-Canel was forced to recognize the shortcomings of the new system.

"We have had more complaints related to online shopping than about health care during the pandemic," he said. The island, with a population of over 11 million, has had relatively few coronavirus cases -- 2,319 with 85 fatalities.

"Reality has exceeded capacity," said Diaz-Canel.

Noris, whose blog Tuandroid is devoted to new technology, translated Diaz-Canel's mea culpa into IT terms: "The servers were unprepared for the demand."

The shock was severe for Tuenvio, which went from having hundreds of online visits a day to 8,000 after the government ordered a widespread lockdown, including the closure of many supermarkets.

Orders soared from just over 1,300 in February to 6,000 in March, growing to nearly 79,000 in the first half of May.

"Tuenvio has to be put in context. It is a crisis solution for crisis moment, and executed fairly quickly -- perhaps without the time or the thought necessary -- without studying successful experiences elsewhere" said Juan Triana, a professor at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

"Online shopping will not necessarily solve the fundamental problem in Cuba, which is the supply deficit which is not linked to COVID-19 but existed long before."

"Obviously, it could have been done better," he said, especially in terms of organization because "suddenly the delivery locations have multiplied -- customers too -- but without the logistics to guarantee distribution."

- Not Amazon -

Outside the Cuarto Caminos supermarket in Havana, trucks, vans and even taxis are used to load orders for online customers, the goods sorted into large transparent plastic bags.

Yahima De Los Santos, 43, comes to pick up her purchases. "I prefer to come to the store myself, it's safer to be sure that nothing is missing," she said, though she is delighted with the experience.

"For me, it's one of the best things, because it's never easy to queue."

"The only thing I don't like about it, and a few people complain about it, is that when you buy online you have to be very quick. When put a product in your basket, sometimes it's not there anymore by the time you pay."

Faced with thousands of complaints, the military-owned distribution companies Cimex and Tiendas Caribe have shut down part of their sites for an overhaul.

And even the Communist Party-controlled state media have devoted long, critical articles to the problem.

The Cubadebate site suspected sought-after foods like chicken had been "misappropriated" after customers said they often see it delivered to the store, though it is rarely available to buy online. The article had a thousand comments from angry Cubans.

Noris for one is resigned to suffer on.

"In the world of online shopping, the customer experience is important, but in Cuba we leave all that aside because there is no other option. I'd like to buy on Amazon, but this is obviously not possible. I have to buy on Tuenvio."

A virtual store truck drives along a street in Havana on June 17, 2020

A worker loads online purchases on a van to be delivered, outside a pick up center in Havana, on June 17, 2020

A man walks across a bridge with an advertising of an online store reading ?From anywhere in the world, your purchases in Cuba? in Havana on June 17, 2020

A worker transports online purchases at a pick up center in Havana, on June 17, 2020