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BB: The eCommerce market in the Middle East has been on a massive rise, unlocking a wide multitude of opportunities for retail and non-retail brands as well. Can you shed some light on how eCommerce can be a pivotal growth imperative for businesses?

SF: E-commerce is pivotal to any business that wishes to remain relevant now and in the future. With the proliferation of technologies that have enabled major retailers to open a digital storefront, it should not even be a discussion whether your brand needs a digital presence, much less an e-commerce presence. Small, local shops, such as cafés or boutiques, may choose not to adopt a delivery/e-commerce model. However, if they want to stay competitive, they will need to be visible online (a Google My Business Listing for instance, so that they show up on Google Maps), simply because that is where their consumers are. According to a recent Bain report, 48% of consumers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia get their shopping ideas and inspirations online. That’s nearly double what we see in the United Kingdom, which is considered a more mature market. The role of search engines is instrumental to this: 56% of consumers in the UAE, Saudi and Egypt claim they start their online shopping journeys on search and not on retail websites. Businesses in the Middle East need to move online in some form or another to survive, because their consumers and competition are already there.

Stacy Fisher: Head of Digital Transformation, Hearts & Science MENA

However, it’s becoming tougher for retailers to compete, in this highly cluttered landscape. Take the fashion industry for example, specifically fast fashion. Pure brick and mortar brands are struggling to stay ahead against pure e-commerce brands that have upped the ante. These e-commerce fashion companies have flourished for many reasons – the development of the global economy, legislation that has made logistics and delivery/returns faster and smoother, as well as the proliferation of technology and automation. They understand their consumers needs and wants, having evolved at the same breakneck speed that is expected of them. This has fundamentally changed the relationship between brands and consumers.

BB: Global giants like Amazon and eBay were the trailblazers at the forefront of the eCommerce industry, revolutionizing the whole customer experience equation. What does eCommerce mean for consumers? and how it’s reshaping the way consumers engage with brands?

SF: Consumers today are smart and want everything “now”. This sentiment is only feeding into the on-demand economy, of which e-commerce is just one aspect. People are keen to maximize their time so brands must provide easy online shopping experiences with an effortless checkout flow, quick and free delivery, and simple returns. The key here is efficiency. Consumers have become accustomed to higher standards of service today and many brands are still playing catch up.

To cater to this need for efficiency, we’ve seen an increase in brands expanding their customer service via chatbots, loyalty programs, and enhanced tracking on deliveries (for example many food delivery apps now show exactly where the driver is). Likewise, the speed of delivery has put pressure on other retailers to enhance their logistics to be able to compete. Overall, brands must err on the side caution when it comes to implementing any new technology. It is important to be brave, but you also need to be realistic. You must consider the functionality and how your consumers are going to receive these new platforms. Don’t just ride a trend for the sake of it, because your consumers may well punish you for making the wrong bet. They’re spoilt for choice and can easily take their business elsewhere.

BB: Due to the scaling demand for technology in the online retail scene, brands hand in hand with retailers and wholesalers must implement omnichannel experience strategies. Please comment.

SF: In this fast-paced world, creating unified omni-channel experiences across your different touch points for consumers is imperative. This is particularly true for our region where consumers research online but purchase offline (ROPO). You must ensure that for the end user, the experience is completely smooth and takes into account different shopping patterns. For instance, if consumers look for information on products online and don’t find it immediately, they may have to call or go in-store to find out what they’re looking for. However, since consumers are increasingly reliant on online reviews, the absence of easily accessible information could put them off your brand.

Likewise, with less than 4% of sales happening online, brands must understand how their digital advertising impacts in-store sales and their brand, through proper tracking and research. Based on a Hearts & Science study in the US, mobile in-app experiences generate twice as much biometric intensity than linear television experiences. However, getting ad experiences right in these environments isn’t easy, especially considering that most of these consumers find such experiences interruptive and annoying. Not only can this impact your brand, you also must understand how the UX/UI/online purchase journey might be yielding drop off. For example, site speed, steps to complete purchase and order customization are some examples of reasons people do not complete their purchase online. Or they choose to purchase from a competitor or aggregator (specifically in food delivery) because the process requires fewer steps. Unfortunately, even with this information you still see brands that are too slow to adapt their digital touchpoints to account for purchase behaviour. Many companies operate in silos with different departments like IT, sales and marketing working towards achieving mis-aligned KPIs. They all need to collaborate better to ensure their structure and inertia don’t limit their success in transforming their business. Otherwise, they risk getting left behind.

BB: What are the considerations brands should consciously be aware of on their road to a successful digital transformation strategy?

SF: Brands should be very cognizant and open to data collection, analysis and  portability. They also need to collaborate with trusted partners to transform for the digital world and make better business decisions. Having a robust CRM solution to capture omnichannel sales and a proper measurement framework is just the beginning. Since many company structures work in siloes, the data tends to be looked at separately. To be effective, every business needs to have all their systems and analytics talk to each other by ensuring they’re properly integrated. Make sure you’re measuring everything correctly and looking at the data together to ensure there are no inconsistencies. For example, website e-commerce sales data from the marketing team should make sense with overall sales data from the sales team. Only then, will the marketing team be able to ensure they’re getting the optimal media mix.

All this can only be possible if companies are open to organizational change and trust  their agencies. For the former, few companies are structured internally to function in this increasingly digital world and many are resistant to this change. If departments work in siloes, with separate KPIs, it ultimately impacts the business as well as consumers. Breaking down siloes isn’t the solution as they bring in their own expertise and knowledge. It’s more important to ensure they work together more seamlessly with common objectives, something that Forbes magazine accomplished when they set out on their digital transformation journey. Their work on transformation resulted in 2018 being their most profitable year in over a decade. Digital transformation works and there are some great examples of brands doing it right. The lesson is to embrace your data and ensure you start with the basics. With regards to trust, it is a crucial foundation for the client-agency relationship, especially when it comes to sharing data. A brand should empower its marketing agency to more effectively target people through media, while the agency in turn needs to be clear and transparent about how it’s using this data to help achieve brand and marketing KPIs. Internal and external objectives need to be aligned for any brand to be successful in this digital world.

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