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Why we Implemented USSD for Retailers

Sun, 17 May, 2020

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When you think of all the cool things software developers can do, USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) does not top the list. Actually, most people believe that it's too old school for 2020. Despite that, we use it regularly to check mobile airtime balances, top up our airtime or data or pay for parking fees. Indeed, many financial institutions and utility companies use it alongside mobile apps to deliver key services to their customers.

USSD is a protocol used by GSM cellphones to communicate with their service provider’s computers via text messages.

The beauty of USSD is that it democratizes access to services by way of mobile phone as all phones are supported as long as a GSM SIM card is present. What's even better is that an internet connection is unnecessary.

RetailPay is a cloud based solution that allows actors in the retail sector to access goods and services in an open and transparent manner. While the suppliers we work with range from large manufacturing companies to other smaller scale entities, all the retailers we partner with are at the bottom of the pyramid. These retailers use the RetailPay technology to sell, manage their inventory, access products from a network of suppliers and oversee their business through a Point of Sale, App and a Web portal.

When we started this journey, we were racing full steam and building tools that were considered cutting edge in the traditional retail sector in Kenya; automatic reordering, machine learning to predict ordering patterns, apps that could perform multiple operations at store level.

While these were excellent tools and most of our users adapted quite fast to the technologies we built, we still met challenges in ease of use and familiarity. Add to the fact that RetailPay retailers aren't a homogeneous group; they are varied in educational background, age, socio economic status and all these play into how fast they can adapt to technology.

USSD was an answer to many of our questions, as it is easy to use with its step by step instructional nature and is very familiar to users at the bottom of the pyramid.

As a company, we had to accept that while we may have cutting edge technology, the nature of the environment we operate in and the diverse nature of partners dictated that we take a step back and build suitable tools.

With this knowledge, we have rolled out a USSD platform as an alternative to PoS and Web payments. Retailers can use USSD to convert cash into digital money to pay for products on the platform; either upfront or at the point of sale.

The results? Fewer support calls related to payments, retailers taking shorter times to complete the payment process and customer satisfaction as relates to ease of making payments has improved.

It seems that all it took was to lean onto a technology from the last decade to make our partners' lives a little better.