RIYADH: As industries around the world struggle to get back on their feet in a post-COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) world, there is one industry that has seen unprecedented growth, e-commerce.
From ordering everyday essentials such as groceries to appliances and other big-ticket items, more people are shopping online than ever before.
Sarah Jones, CEO of Sprii, an e-commerce platform designed for mothers, said: “During the lockdown, we saw a lot of shopping spikes come between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m. across the GCC but post-lockdown, we’re now seeing shopping spikes happen between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.
“Sundays continue to be our best days for moms logging on to our platform and unsurprisingly, we tend to see the most sales come in the first week and last week of the month, coinciding with paydays.
“Understanding who is shopping on your site and when is key to providing some stability when things shift away from the everyday norm,” she added.
Speaking to Arab News, Jones explained the e-commerce boom and what she thought the future held in store for the sector.
How has brick and mortar versus e-commerce shopping evolved in the Middle East?
E-commerce is known for being a disruptor. If you think about life in the Middle East prior to online shopping going mainstream, this region was known for its mall culture. The norm was to go out and buy. Purchasing online was still new and something of a novelty.
A lot can change in six years. A lot can change in six months too, which is where we find ourselves right now – on the cusp of further change post-COVID-19.
A new frontier for e-commerce; one where it is the unchallenged leader, rather than playing second fiddle to brick-and-mortar retail.
Even before COVID-19 struck, the retail world was shifting. Businesses were encouraged to have an online presence to complement their offline offering, whilst pure e-commerce was thriving.
The Middle East market was expected to reach $69 billion in 2020. Of course, this number could well be higher when all the data is collated for the last few months.
The outlook is positive, but as economic recovery continues, we all need to be mindful of the lasting impact this lockdown has had; it has changed the retail landscape forever.
How did the lockdown affect the growth of e-commerce?
Things advanced further during lockdown as the world moved inside and online almost overnight.
According to Adobe’s Digital Economy Index, e-commerce expenditure exceeded expectations by more than $52 billion since the lockdown began in March. Total online spending hit $82.5 billion in May alone; up 77 percent year-on-year. COVID-19 essentially accelerated e-commerce growth by four to six years.
As staggering as this figure is, it’s entirely possible when you think about how e-commerce provided a lifeline to everyday essentials, delivered as quickly and conveniently as possible during the pandemic.
Companies that already had an established offering prospered, whilst others had to quickly pivot to find new avenues of business. Even the large corporates underestimated the landslide demand, whilst agile SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) were able to move quicker and respond in real time as trends began to emerge and shopping patterns changed.
How do you expect the landscape to change now that markets are opening back up?
On both a professional and personal level, it has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone, dealing with the ramifications from a global pandemic that gripped the world.
Now, as we begin to move on from lockdown life, there is uncertainty, caution, and yes, opportunities to be found, particularly when it comes to e-commerce.
As markets begin to open and we return to some level of normalcy, it’s clear the boom e-commerce experienced during lockdown is here to stay, buoyed by changing consumer expectations and behavior.
Pre-COVID-19, online shopping was already on the rise in the region, with barriers to entry (such as last-mile delivery and anxiety around online payments) giving way to the ease and choice that e-commerce offered.
It’s certainly an interesting time to be an online venture. As much as we should look to lead and advise the consumer, we also need to be ready to respond with alternatives when the need changes. Lockdown brought about an influx of new rules that meant ‘business as usual’ was quite literally impossible.
Do you think there will be a decrease in e-commerce sales as people are allowed to move about more freely and shop in store?
We do not see that changing now that we’re mobile again. People may be returning to work and to the malls, but this doesn’t mean less online shopping. If anything, everyone has experienced the convenience that e-commerce affords and that will not subside overnight.
Ernst and Young conducted a survey in the first week of May that revealed 92 percent of consumers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia had changed their shopping habits as a result of COVID-19.
Even cash-on-delivery, once the cornerstone of transactions within the Middle East, is likely to wane long-term as more people adopt digital payments due to the pandemic.
Any learnings or advice you would like to share for online brands in a post-COVID-19 world?
Ultimately, there is no magic bullet or quick win when it comes to building your business in a post-COVID-19 world.
We need to take each day as it comes, be grateful and listen more to what consumers want and when and build upon them.
COVID-19 has accelerated change in every industry, but for e-commerce, there’s an opportunity here to really capitalize on what has been achieved so far and build on this to continue to improve the user experience at every touchpoint for consumers.