By Sofia Serrano
E-commerce is a well-established practice for most of us these days. The retail industry has experienced fundamental changes in how commerce is done, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is following the trend. According to Bain & Company’s February 2019 ‘E-commerce in MENA’ report, e-commerce is reinventing the market, forming new paths to purchase and new customer experiences, while also disrupting business models and creating new opportunities. To better understand these changes the team at Liquid Retail, a Dubai-based marketing agency, gives insights into e-commerce and its trends.
The biggest e-commerce retailers Noon and Amazon established in the region at the end of 2017. Sachinn J Laala, CEO at Liquid, says that at this time 80 per cent of e-commerce was consumer electronics and most marketers saw e-commerce as a specialised function.
“We as Liquid saw e-commerce as an extension to retail and had the vision to cater to the needs for those who shop in brick-and-mortar or e-commerce, so we focus on selling the brands irrespective of the channel,” says Laala. He lists some of the selling channels in the region. These include traditional brick-and-mortar stores, pure players such as Amazon and Noon, retailers such as Carrefour and Choithrams and e-grocers like InstaShop. Liquid works with all of these, communicating to the customer what their regimen – the way to use a product – should be and translating this narrative through all channels, while always contemplating the customer’s perspective; customers want to solve a need, regardless of the channels, says Laala.
The coronavirus pandemic has transformed commerce, says Richard Nicoll, managing director and chief commerce officer at Liquid. He says: “With Covid-19 we have seen the definition of the verb ‘to shop’ being challenged. In January, if I told you that you were going to do your grocery shopping, you would have perceived this as going to the store, filling up your trolley and bringing it home. Now if I tell you the same, chances are you’re picking up a smartphone.” Indeed, because of Covid-19, it became a necessity to shop online. According to Nicoll, what the coronavirus has done to retail is an acceleration of the narrative that had already opened a range of choices for points-of-purchase. The question is whether consumers are going back to their old habits or maybe using a mixture of channels for purchasing different products.
Marketing changed during the pandemic as brands moved their messaging to be as close as possible to the points of sale. Nicoll says: “As people have changed their channels of purchase, brands should follow suit and build messages around these channels.” As a result, many brands have pivoted from offline retail investment into online retail investment, or from other brand initiatives into e-commerce initiatives. As a clear consequence of the Covid crisis, there has been an explosion of purchase channels. Covid also accelerated the digital transformation of retail. What is likely to happen next is that e-commerce will transform into a more experiential and more holistically content-rich platform, as other points of purchase will continue to expand.
The basic needs of customers have not changed, says Nicoll. These are: quality, convenience, value and safety. However, what has changed is the prioritisation of these needs. For instance, safety has entirely changed and gained force as people look for safety and hygiene across offline and online shopping. Value has changed as the economic situation has developed, so now people are more likely to buy private-label (stores’ own-brand) products. Still, there might be exceptions in some categories as people indulge in “revenge spending” on treats or luxuries after months in lockdown. Convenience has drastically changed, as now with a push of a button you can get something delivered within an hour, simplifying the shopping experience. Quality has not changed as much; for example, you expect your vegetables fresh regardless of the channels of purchase or other variables. Nicoll says the fundamentals of retail have not changed but the constructions within them have.
Colman Sheil, chief creative officer at Liquid, says the GCC has a unique retail culture. It is a common practice to spend the day at the mall, where you will buy groceries and also spend on dining or other types of entertainment. Still, Sheil says, under Covid people see e-commerce as an option for safety, and with the advantage of not having to carry heavy objects.
Sheil adds that experience is becoming an incentive for customers to choose one brand over another. Businesses have to develop the best online services for changing scenarios, since a lack of adaptation can mean their customers’ loyalties are lost.
Nicoll worked for six years in East Asia with Publicis Groupe before returning to Dubai to join Liquid. He says: “The world tends to be split in half. There is the Western world that’s led by the US, and the Eastern world that’s led by China. You have Amazon in the West and you have Alibaba in the East, which has recently opened 300 stores in the East. I feel a bit biased since I was working for six years in China, but I think the next big thing will come from the East.”
As an example, Nicoll says that a year ago conversations with local brands about using QR codes to bridge the gap between physical and digital seemed like science fiction. Now, with coronavirus hygiene precautions in place, it is common to use QR codes in restaurants to read the menu. In China, they have been common for some time.
With or without Covid-19, retail is constantly changing, and brands’ focus should be on consumer needs and shopping behaviour. Laala says: “Going online just for the sake of it is not a wise move, but if your shopper is going online please be there.” Retail is liquid, say the team, thus “Liquid is retail”. It is important to keep on adapting because those brands that manage to do so will flourish.
Established in 2016, By Sachinn J Laala and Colman Sheil, Liquid has grown from a start-up to become one of the region’s most dynamic and diverse retail agencies. With a clear focus across all commerce, Liquid’s creatively led and fully integrated approach to marketing at retail delivers a seamless experience across all sales channels. As Sachinn J Laala, Liquid’s founder and CEO, says, “We started off as two guys with a passion and belief in what we do and now work in an agency of 70 fantastic talented people and with some of the region’s most loved retailers and brands, helping them to create ideas and strategies, wherever retail flows. Liquid is retail because retail is liquid.”
Driven by a passion for solving business problems at retail, creativity is at the heart of Liquid’s offering. While some might see the retail-only positioning as limiting, the Liquid team see the store and e-store as a fantastically rich opportunity to express creativity, deliver ideas and build brands. As Colman Sheil, Liquid’s founder and CCO, puts it, “Creativity is all about solving problems with innovation and craft; that’s what we do. At retail, the problem is how to win sales, so our ideas are often focused on exactly that. There’s nothing wrong with asking for the sale, but we know it’s how you ask that matters.”
As well as consolidating its omnicommerce activities in MENA, Liquid is already actively expanding its activities outside of the region. Recent business wins in Europe, the UK and Pakistan have ensured that the agency has started to realise international ambitions, which led to its recently opened offices in Poland, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, with others planned for 2021. Richard Nicoll, Liquid’s managing director, explains: “It’s a natural next step for us; we are attracting increasingly internationally experienced specialist talent and our clients are finding that our expertise and services are easily transferable across borders and markets.”
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