Saudi Report 2021: Changes in store, by Liquid’s Khaled Ghorayab

Liquid’s Khaled Ghorayab asks what the future holds for retail in KSA.

For retailers and shoppers, the accelerated adoption of e-commerce during the pandemic has been dramatic. As we begin to return to a way of life that is no longer familiar, retailers and shoppers are reassessing what it is that we consider integral to our everyday lives and what makes us happy. 

When evaluating how we spend our time, we must consider what it is about the shopping experience that we cannot do without. Shopping in the most conventional sense has been taken away from us as social distancing measures and face masks have made our typical shopping experience far from normal.

Despite this, the retail experience in Saudi Arabia remains woven into the fabric of society, to such a degree that it is essentially representative of all that we hold dear: family, friends and human interaction. Shopping, here, is more than just a purchase – it is an experience to savour, to remember and to recount.  As shoppers reassess their options based on this premise, retailers must also consider their online offering as consumers look to online shopping for that experience.

Retailers must listen to shoppers to find out what they want from the experience and respect this new mindset. The removal of physical boundaries has meant shoppers care less about where they buy and more about what they buy. They are more conscious post-pandemic and it is crucial for retailers to concentrate less on the channel and more on shopper experience, with an aim to fill a specific role in people’s lives. To draw shoppers out, in-store must involve them on an emotional level – it could be an extension of that human interaction that we all miss, but it must be meaningful.

The rise of e-commerce should drive innovation in KSA malls. Retailers can create immersive environments by giving their people the freedom to engage and to create a memorable human interaction.

Stores are already locked into a digital revolution that will make it easier for them to attract customers using new technology. Mobile payments and digital wallets are close to breaking through to the mainstream, and this is perhaps a bigger change than it may seem. It will provide an ease and convenience that has been missing in offline shopping.

In a recent poll by Standard Chartered, two-thirds of UAE residents said they expect the country to become fully cashless by 2030.

Go-to-market planning, content creation, merchandising and channel execution must all be connected because any breakdown in that chain can leave you exposed. Shoppers can identify companies that do not fulfil their promises, and that includes environmental and social commitments too.

If retailers are getting these functions right offline by communicating product benefits and knocking down purchase barriers, then they must use this same blend online.

Brands around the region recognise the need to engage with shoppers online and are committing more resources to dynamic content and brand store templates. These steps help shoppers make more informed choices based on the knowledge of a product and its alternatives. According to Statista, 62 per cent of the KSA population shopped online in 2020. It is essential that retailers use their digital marketing platforms wisely by treating the online space as a place to shop rather than simply to buy.

As a retail channel, social media is just getting started and retailers are scrambling to find the most effective ways to make it work. Instagram, Facebook, Reddit and TikTok are now viable routes to market for brands behind the evolution of the retail space, but the emergence of social channels should be a cautionary tale for retailers and brands. This industry is not standing still.

Social media can offer brands the chance to present a customer journey while creating a distinct brand voice, offering a call to action and engaging on an emotional level. By the end of 2021, social media could account for a third of the total digital media advertising spend in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Consultancy-me.

Backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) and a willingness on the part of retailers and brands to adapt and listen, the outlook for retail in the kingdom is overwhelmingly positive. What is required from retailers is an appetite for change, because if we can take one lesson from the past year it is that even if life as we knew it will be similar, it will never be the same again.