Answering the call for empowerment

As women in Saudi Arabia call for more equality, brands must give them the power they seek, argues Alexandra Tohme

“If ever there was a time for retailers to take advantage of a mass shift in female customer expectations, this is it. Tracking the influence of North African unrest on Saudi Arabia through internet memes clearly shows a mass push by women to have more of a say in their lifestyles.

In February we had #egyeffectSA, followed by #saudiwomenrevolution. A branch of this was #khobargirlsunite, #jeddahgirlsunite and #riyadhgirlsunite – calling for equality in municipal voting starting 23 April. Most recently we have #women2drive – which represents a group of Saudi women in a co-ordinated car drive to push for equality on the roads on 17 June.

Women are clearly calling for more control and for solutions that empower them. What does all of this mean for retail brands and advertising? It means that brands need to give the female consumer that power, make her life easier and connect her to like-minded people. The most obvious way to do this is by introducing e-commerce on a mass scale.

FMCG, clothing and grocery brands are big enough to influence supply chains and develop competitive logistics solutions that can positively change the consumer experience. Rural populations outside of the catchment areas of malls can efficiently be brought in as customers thanks to economies of scale, and urban groups can benefit from more tailored solutions. Al Othaim – the second biggest supermarket chain in Saudi – spoke last year of wanting to be the next Walmart and is trying to convince Saudi residents to look beyond their classic baqalas in favour of supermarkets and hypermarkets. In order to do this it could emulate Tesco’s approach, the world leader in online grocery retailing.

Retail – not designed with women in mind
Brett King in his 2010 book Bank 2.0 analyses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and claims that “the growth of newer technologies, more efficient service paths and ways to meet our self actualisation needs have shifted the way we value our time, set expectations and perceive ourselves in our environment”. In addition, “the execution of a transaction or a purchase without the assistance of a person, as long as it works well, gives us a feeling of control and self-achievement that cannot be achieved in a traditional interaction”.

Although Saudi Arabia has recently been identified as the next geographical star in the retail industry due to population figures and an underserved market, it still feels like the retail experience has been designed for real estate and retail owners to profit from rents per square foot rather than how the end consumer feels or her ability to manage her interactions.

Nowhere is the problem more acute for women than when shopping for underwear in shops that are staffed soley by foreign men. For those versed in sales tactics, engendering trust and compatibility with your target is key to more sales. If women cannot be brought in to the shop to sell, then getting the shop online is crucial.

The path to purchase is online
In 2010, Microsoft Research and Carat showed that the path to purchase is increasingly non linear. They looked at how different media touchpoints affect consumer shopping behaviour, including the way people learn about, research and discuss their purchase decisions. This shift has altered the traditional purchase funnel whereby marketers move consumers from awareness to sales to include digital media.

If brands can supplement their offline stores with online stores, the opportunities to generate more sales and repeat visits are vast. After learning that Christian Louboutin is to open a store in Riyadh next month, an online search yielded strange results. Social sites rank first, and when clicking on content results I can read about the brand, but I’m not given any opportunity to actually buy anything from Louboutin.

Why are brands forcing women to go to the bricks and mortar store when there is a huge opportunity to facilitate online transactions? Leveraging the bloggers as affiliate marketers could capture potential customers at a much greater efficiency than traditional communication methods. The interplay of search and social media generates even more conversion as recent research shows: “When consumers were exposed to both brand-specific search results and social media, search clickthrough rates increased by 94 per cent, indicating the investment in social media can help marketers to better influence consumers during their purchasing process and boost search performance.”

Advertising spend to communicate with existing customers and to attract new customers will continue to increase using traditional methods. In comparison, retailers that have online sales channels benefit from better CRM, better customer service and more efficient media buys.

Unlocking the savings of women in Saudi Arabia
According to the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, Saudi women have cash savings of more than $11.9 billion in Saudi banks and $2.1 billion of funds in investments. Savings are high amongst women because of the requirement of a male guardian to invest or start a business. Financial institutions have been first movers to unlock this capital. Those focusing on Saudi women as customers are hiring more women in their sales force to understand their target customer’s mentality and to innovate with new products and services.

Although women are being hired to serve other women in banking, this is not happening in retail. Brands and retailers therefore need to do much more to stimulate spending and increase liquidity in the market. The way to do this is by making it as easy as possible for women to shop and allow them to shop in groups and buy and sell from each other.

N2V, an internet holding and investment company, surveyed a sample of women on the Hawaa World forum that were already engaged in e-commerce activities. The majority of them said that Hawaa was not enough to successfully market their products, with 80 per cent of respondents using other sites to sell.
A total of 57 per cent of women had been trading on the forum for less than two years, suggesting that it doesn’t take long for women to adopt new technological services. The preferred payment method was bank transfer (73 per cent of respondents), way ahead of other payment gateways or services such as Western Union. Fifty-four per cent of sellers preferred using a logistics company rather than any other method to deliver the goods to the buyer. This is unsurprising as being unable to drive would preclude female sellers or buyers from picking up the products themselves. The Central region was where most activity was focused (45 per cent of respondents) followed by Western region at almost 30 per cent. The main cities in these regions are Riyadh and Jeddah respectively.

Historical research
The interesting thing is that since 2000, various academic papers investigating e-commerce in Saudi have been written and have come to similar conclusions. Private enterprise has not acted upon their recommendations.

In 2000, a research paper by Sadiq Sait called E-Commerce in Saudi Arabia: Adoption and Perspectives, showed that 65 per cent of respondents agreed that the use of the internet for shopping and banking would make life easier. In 2005, Samba Financial Group was the first company to launch internet payment services with their product ‘Samba Connect’. CEO Eisa al Eisa anticip-ated “greater online activity in the coming months as more merchants in Saudi Arabia begin to take advantage of this delivery channel and offer online purchase facilities”.

A 2008 paper by Humaira Siddique investigated intentions to use e-commerce across the UAE and Saudi and found that “women in Saudi Arabia have a much higher intention to use e-commerce as compared to men in Saudi Arabia”.

In 2009 Talal al Maghrabi published a paper titled The Driving Factors of Continuance Online Shopping: Gender Differences in Behaviour – the case of Saudi Arabia. The findings confirmed that perceived enjoyment, perceived usefulness, and subjective norms are the main determinants of continuance intentions in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, men are more influenced by evaluations of the utilitarian usefulness of technology, whereas women tend to accept technology based on their hedonic experiences and the opinions of others.

Earlier this year, Aileen Lee, partner at private equity firm KPCB, said: “Female users are the unsung heroines behind the most engaging, fastest growing, and most valuable consumer internet and e-commerce companies, when it comes to social and shopping, women rule the internet”. She also says that: “The majority of revenue for Zappos, Groupon, Gilt Group, Etsy, Facebook, Zynga, and Twitter comes from women.”

Academic and empirical research conducted in Saudi goes quite a way to confirm results seen in other parts of the world; namely that e-commerce solutions tailored towards women will be very successful and will be welcomed by a large enough part of the community to make it profitable for companies.

Brands will be rewarded
At the beginning of the article I stated that the time is ripe to capitalise on the female consumer’s expectation for more control and more tailored solutions. Rather than subside, these feelings will continue until companies fill that gap. With a large part of the population under 30 and technologically aware, it is inevitable that some will create solutions for themselves, as we have already seen with small pockets of women on forums.

Banks need to join in the push by creating cards that are marketed towards women and work in conjunction with retailers to create a safe online shopping environment. By providing women with the opportunity to customise their shopping experience, brands will be rewarded by a significant increase in sales, loyalty and engagement.”

Alexandra Tohme is a digital strategic planner at Leo Burnett Dubai


1 Comment

  • Very well said @alexandra. Although the infrastructure for e-commerce in GCC or MENA is yet to take off. In marketing terms, innovative consumers that account for 2.5 to 5 percent of the total potential e-commerce channel will be the pioneers in adopting it and advocate others to join in. Having my experience in the retail industry working as a product manage in Alghanim Electronics located in Kuwait for 5 years, I can assure you that the GCC customer or I can say about the Kuwaiti customer will not purchase an item unless he/she is assisted by a sales person. This goes on all level of retail outlets in Kuwait from consumer electronics to clothes. The culture still in mind that consumers need to be pampered and assisted in order to close the deal, otherwise, you lose out on the sale. I can’t wait to see how the culture and mind set will change in adopting e-commerce, and Alexandra have made a very good point when focussing on women in the region because they do hold the key for success in this channel.

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