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The future of commerce is social, by Facebook MENA’s Ramez T Shehadi

Ramez T Shehadi, Facebook MENA’s managing director, explains how Covid-19 has accelerated innovation in online purchases.

At the end of 2019, I was planning for the year ahead with my teams, with one eye on major trends influencing businesses globally and across the MENA region. The continued rise of mobile, messaging, e-commerce, conversational commerce and an expanding ecosystem of tech service providers would inform our approach to connecting people and businesses.

But Covid-19 has taken the trends that might have seen wider adoption over the next five years and compressed them into a time span of months. Necessity has proven to be the mother not just of invention but of adoption as well.

As a result of this pandemic, digital transformation proved to be crucial for the survivability of businesses across the region, especially within the e-commerce industry that strongly drives the digital economy closer to home. According to the 2019 UAE E-commerce Landscape Report, the digital economy in the UAE contributed to 4.3 per cent of the nation’s GDP and the UAE’s e-commerce industry was set to reach $63.8bn by 2023.

The UAE’s e-commerce sector has been comparatively more successful than more than 30 other economies, according to a recent analysis conducted by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

According to a new report ‘Life After Covid-19: Retail’ by Dubai Future Foundation (DFF), Dubai-based mall operator Majid Al Futtaim (MAF) has seen a surge in online sales, with a 59 per cent year-on-year increase in online customers in March 2020. MAF’s Carrefour brand launched one main digital platform that integrates more than 100,000 products on its website, in-store kiosks and tablets and mobile app, re-inventing experiences for more than 750,000 daily customers. Similarly, Saudi Arabian retailer BinDawood Holding has seen a 200 per cent increase in its online sales since the escalation of the Covid-19 crisis.

This shows that businesses of all sizes are being forced to change their model and focus primarily on selling online. It’s also why Facebook has made the move into shopping with our recent announcement of Facebook Shops – a way for businesses to set up a single online store across Facebook and Instagram for free.

While physical stores will always be important to the social and economic wellbeing of local communities, it’s clear e-commerce is here to grow. So, what does this mean for the future of commerce?


Even before people stopped feeling comfortable spending time in stores, they were turning to online platforms to browse and find inspiration.

Instead of consumers finding their preferred products, their products are finding them. This reversal is being driven by businesses that understand the importance of creating demand through discovery and, as a result, are investing in a more modern kind of marketing: discovery commerce.

Businesses continue to find creative ways to redesign experiences that are completely reliant on in-store footfall. The variety of online shopping modes will continue to expand in the isolation economy: shopping directly from social channels, live video, messaging with businesses, click-and-collect or subscription services – all this looks poised for explosive growth. Apparel Group, for example, is using WhatsApp as customer service as well as a sales channel to utilise effective online channels during this time. Most recently, it was able to see 20 per cent more sales generated by WhatsApp for a given brand, versus sales coming from the same brand’s e-commerce website.


Businesses need to refresh their understanding of people’s preferences and consistently learn from their creativity. When we originally built Facebook Live, we probably had not imagined this as a possible use case. Yet, businesses are now using live video to launch a range of things

–from shoe stores announcing new sneakers to beauty influencers trying on different lipsticks. Finally, businesses need to pay attention to the fundamental need that buyers and sellers have to connect, chat and enjoy the social value that makes a transaction fun.

For hundreds of years, commerce was a relationship initiated by one person’s need and fulfilled by another’s supply. And now, even in the current period of physical isolation, consumers are still looking for that relationship and connection, digitally.


Increasingly, consumers’ commercial choices also have a social bent – they want to give a shout out to their favourite local business and they want to help their neighbourhood restaurants stay open. They are leading conversations and forming communities even as they shop – they are looking beyond the list of products to the mission and the values the business represents. Personally, I have been drawn to buying essentials like reusable masks from small businesses trying to make a positive impact. It leads me to believe that the future of commerce is even more social than we once thought.

For the short-term, brands – no matter how large or small – need to think of the best ways to connect their products and services to the physical isolation economy. In the long term, the responsibility to create better digital experiences doesn’t just rest with the retailers, but with all of the platforms they use to engage customers.