Making e-Commerce Work in The Middle East

03 May 2021

The ‘can’t find address’ challenge: making e-commerce work for  the Middle East 

It’s no secret that online shopping is booming. Already a growing trend, pre-pandemic, store closures and lockdowns across the world have seen numbers soar, and in the Middle East, 73% of consumers are now doing more of their shopping online. With the market forecast to hit $50 billion by 2025, this is one trend that’s here to stay.

Traditionally, e-commerce has always been behind the curve in the Middle East - a lack of unique postal addresses makes deliveries tricky, while our love of the mall has made us less inclined to move online. 

But with all six of the Middle Eastern Gulf countries sitting in the top 34 wealthiest nations in the world, the untapped potential wasn’t going to be ignored. Throw in one of the youngest populations, with tech-savvy 15-29 year-olds accounting for 28% of the 108 million people living in the Middle East, and you have a market primed for e-commerce.

Cash is King

While credit card payments are standard across Europe and the US, cash is still king in the Middle East. As recently as 2015, the World Bank estimated that 85 million adults in the region don’t have a bank account, a clear problem for companies that expect payment before delivery. But as with so many areas of our lives, the pandemic has changed our habits around money. Mastercard has found a 66% increase in MEA customers banking online, and the improvement in secure, swift checkout experiences will see more and more customers moving over to card payments.

Hide and Seek

So you’ve paid for your new sneakers online, but how to get them from the US to your feet? If you’ve ever spent an hour trying to find a new friend’s apartment or wandering the streets in search of the not-be-missed event you’ve heard about, you’ll know that the lack of a zip code system or formal naming of roads in some areas can be a real pain. And if you’re a delivery driver on a tight schedule? Well, now that’s just not happening. 

The solution? A wave of smart delivery services with a difference. Dubai-based Fetchr completely bypasses the lack-of-address issue by using GPS technology to deliver. As long as you have a phone in your hand, Fetchr will find you and get your package to you. 

More recently, Emirates Delivers launched, and this clever air cargo service leverages the Emirates fleet to deliver your online purchase to an address in the U.S, consolidate all your online purchases into one neat package, then ships that package straight to you within 5-7 business days.

Meet me at the Mall?

But while this move to online shopping has seen many stores across the US and Europe closing down, analysts here suggest that e-commerce is more likely to happily coexist with the bricks and mortar stores we all love. This is in part down to the Middle Eastern culture that has grown up around the mall. 

While in the West, you might find restaurants, cafes and retail stores popping up organically on high streets and in town centers, here in the Middle East, the mall is a destination in its own right. 

We spend weekends hanging out there with our friends, strolling around the stores, getting a bite to eat and perhaps catching a movie, all under one roof. We love a day at the mall, and it’s unlikely that e-commerce will bring an end to this - popping an item in your virtual basket and checking out seconds later might be efficient, but when you live in a hot country where during some months, outdoor excursions are intolerable, the mall is an air-conditioned favourite for friends who want to hang out. Or to grab that box of donuts on the way home from work! 

Getting the Latest US Trends

Nevertheless, while those donuts will always tempt us to the mall, e-commerce is here to stay. And it’s not just regional sites like Noon and that are benefiting. According to Gulf News, UAE consumers spend $1.5 billion at online stores outside the region. Whether that’s down to price points, the latest trends taking too long time to reach our stores or the wider range of products, it represents a significant chunk of the e-commerce market. 

Are you Social Media-savvy?

As one of the biggest consumers of social media, Saudia Arabia has seen a yearly increase of 32% across all platforms, a trend that shows no signs of dropping off. MasterCard reports that 59% of consumers discovered new sellers through Instagram. Which is great if you can get your hands on those Insta-worthy jeans you saw on one of the Kardashians. 

Not so great when you discover that the stores that stock the jeans only ship within the US. 

This is where companies such as Emirates Delivers come in - connecting businesses all over the world with denim loving customers that want access to the latest trends, without the usual shipping headaches faced by MENA customers.

Localize your e-commerce platform 

Last month alone we signed three retail giants from the UK and the US who had never even considered Arabizing their e-commerce until now. The opportunity is there for the taking if only brands see the potential.

As discussed at the end of last year in this post, 72.4% of consumers are more likely to buy in their native language, and right now, a big chunk of the global e-commerce spend is coming straight out of the deep pockets of Arabic speakers in the Gulf. 

Strategic retail firms with an eye on growth opportunities see platforms like Emirates Delivers as a way to get their products into the hands of people on the other side of the world, where previously, their brand footprint wasn’t as strong. 

The best way to do this? Localizing e-commerce stores into languages like Arabic, so that when keen young customers from the Gulf do land on your product page, they can understand your offerings in their language, and make quicker, better-informed purchase decisions.

If you’re a business owner with your eye on the MENA market, drop us a line to see how we can help you float your products in the global market, with a digital presence that meets your customer in their language.