Why the future of the Middle East’s digital commerce is more open than you think, by Sitecore’s Steve Tzikakis

91 per cent of Middle East and North Africa consumers are digital converts to e-commerce, making them open to new experiences and yearning for less transactional shopping, writes Sitecore's CEO Steve Tzikakis.

After such a whirlwind year, it is easy to lose sight of the scale of change underway in the Middle East’s digital commerce. Boosted by shopping at home, now 80 per cent of young Arabs shop online frequently, and 50 per cent of shoppers aged 18-24 in the Middle East and North Africa are shopping more online post-pandemic, according to a recent report by MIT and Wamda.

Given the changing market dynamics, an increasing number of consumer brands are assessing what — if any — direct-to-consumer digital commerce strategy to take in a post-Covid world. Some are understandably hesitant to get distracted by an e-commerce play, not wanting to undermine existing retail partnerships or brand equity with a poor online shopping experience, let alone cannibalize sales or compete in a crowded field dominated by retail giants and a coterie of digitally-native upstarts.

They may want to reassess that calculus for several reasons. For one, consumers are offering a rare opening. A recent survey by YouGov of more than 650 IT decision-makers in the Middle East and North Africa shows that 91 per cent of respondents say their customers are digital converts to e-commerce, and 88 per cent say their brands have changed customer experiences due to the pandemic.

Middle East luxury and lifestyle brands emphasize digital customer experiences

From a technology and operational perspective, there has never been an easier time to go directly online. The revolution in technology adoption in the past year by both everyday people via their smartphones and businesses means brands can truly deliver a connected and consistent experience, powering the full buying cycle from order fulfilment to service beyond the sale through a rich and expanding ecosystem of partners. The alternative is the status quo, where most online shopping experiences are at least partly divorced from the rest of a brand’s advertising, marketing, loyalty programs and customer service.

For many Middle East luxury or lifestyle brands, selling directly online has long been part of their toolkit. But others are seeing the unique opportunities it provides, taking digital destiny into their own hands by going direct to offer a great experience through things like furniture assembly services or personalized shoes — and winning back customers competitors in the process.

Therein lies the key to winning in direct e-commerce for brands: not just offering the option, but making it part of a broader experience that is authentic or exclusive to the brand. The best digital experiences frequently do not begin with a buy button; they begin with content — an app that lets customers find a perfect cosmetics match for every skin tone, an article about a brand initiative that moves someone to tears, or a retro cereal box promotion with designs from decades past that sparks a beloved childhood memory. These starting blocks of powerful digital experiences that move buyers down the funnel and back again are reinforced by every other touchpoint, from email to customer service.

Optimizing Marketing Technology Stack Takes on Increased Importance

To deliver on that vision, Middle East brands need a technology stack that connects all of these dots from content to commerce on any screen. But getting marketing technology perfect is not necessarily a prerequisite to experimenting with direct e-commerce, especially since most brands are not yet set up for this type of customer life cycle marketing. Even where customer data is spotty and platforms are disparately connected, brands often instinctively know their customers better than anyone and can tap into decades of built-in trust to create shopping experiences that are an organic outgrowth of existing brand initiatives or values.

That gives Middle East enterprises time to get the broader integrated technology stack right, and early data to guide success — first fruits in an expanded first-party data relationship with customers that will serve as an important foundation for future experiences, even if most sales continue to take place offline or via other online retail partners. Already, nearly two-thirds (63%) of IT decision-makers in the Middle East and North Africa are improving shopping experiences with revamped websites and mobile apps.

Despite increasing consumer expectations around privacy generally, personalization is actually what consumers want from brands they choose to interact with. Most want brands to know their shopping history and provide a consistent experience online and offline, catering to them as unique individuals and rewarding their loyalty in deeper ways.

Are Middle East brands ready to offer it to them? There has never been a better time to say yes.