Pandemic learnings take centre stage at Middle East’s leading E-commerce industry event

Redbox joins partners, retailers, leaders and industry experts at Dubai’s Seamless Middle East 2020.

How did digital retailers react when the Covid-19 pandemic first took hold in the Middle East earlier this year? What effect did it have on consumer shopping habits? What lessons have been learnt? How has the pandemic shaped the future of online shopping in the region? These were just some of the questions raised and debated at this year’s Seamless Middle East 2020.

Taking place on November 16 and 17 at Dubai’s CommerCity - the first dedicated e-commerce zone in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) - the after-effects of COVID-19 meant it had a slightly different feel to previous years, with a full programme of talks and content both live at the event and online.

And while experts discussed trends, technologies, payment systems and disruptors, unsurprisingly the pandemic wasn’t far from everyone’s thoughts.

As a major sponsor and digital expert in the region, Redbox joined panels and moderated discussions with a range of leaders and businesses.

Below are some of the key highlights from the event.

How Nahdi went back to basics

Redbox partner Nahdi is the largest pharmaceutical chain in the Middle East and North Africa, operating under a massive network of more than 1,200 pharmacies in the Kingdom.

In a session with Redbox Country Manager Sarmad Hassan called ‘Reconnecting with your customers and maintaining a strong CX in time of crisis’, Pawel Dabrowski, Nahdi’s head of Omnichannel, spoke about the company’s strategy at the beginning of the pandemic.

He said: “We had to look at what our guests (customers) truly needed during the difficult times. It wasn’t a time to focus on the best services, new features and nice things to show off, like bringing together channels, touchpoints, personalising messages and offers, and all of the things of a normal omnichannel operation. We had to think in a different way.

“Suddenly our online touch points got 10 times more traffic. It happened to a lot or retailers that suffered. Many sites were going down, applications weren’t working, delivery systems and delivery models couldn’t keep up with the traffic or demand.

“We realised we had to redefine our priorities, which were to get back to basics. Clients weren’t looking for personalised experiences, they were looking for basic experiences.  They wanted the website to be working, the applications to be working, the delivery to be there on time. That’s what we focused on. We survived the first wave and then kept a good quality of service going. With the support from Redbox and other partners we were able to work through any problems and fix them quickly.”

During the early months of the pandemic Nahdi’s orders went from 5,000 to 30,000 a day. The Magento Commerce Cloud platform, with Redbox assistance, proved to be robust and agile in the face of the extra demand, while the company quickly upscaled its delivery service, even using office staff to meet demand.

More recently, the company has seen a huge rise in the number of orders that begin with an online search before a bricks and mortar purchase. Since the pandemic, customers have also been far happier and confident to use other payment options.

In summing up, Pawel added: “2020 was a big lesson for retail and online. Our advice in dealing with a crisis like Covid is literally, ‘first thing’s first’.  Customers are not looking for nice features, or personalised promotions. They want basic products and a check out process that works. Then you have to be able to deliver, which is key.

“How can you deliver and achieve these basics? How do you make the company stable? What happens when you have 500 times more people on your website? What’s going to happen to the website? Can you scale up the business? What about the delivery service? These are things to think about - first thing’s first.”

Adobe says agility is the key

In a discussion entitled ‘Shaping up to new Realities,’ Adobe Commerce Specialist Emilie Martin spoke with Redbox’s Head of Delivery Joseph Degaetano about the importance of retail business agility during these uncertain times.

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen recently laid out how the customer experience has evolved this year. He said that before COVID-19 the customer experience involved, “delivering delightful, personal, relevant interactions in real-time.” Now, this has evolved to “supporting critical needs in an exclusively digital world.”

Adobe noted that there are various pillars of business resilience brands should consider in light of the pandemic learnings. Emilie said these include:

  • Understanding your customer better. Your strategy must change as your customers’ needs have changed. Ensure your customer profile is up to date and provide services and content that is helpful. Brands must anticipate the digital micro-moments.
  • Proactive communication and outreach. Understand pain points in a customer’s journey that will encourage them to move to digital channels and maximize value. When you have understood how the pandemic has impacted your customer, you must adjust your communications. Remain agile and adapt.
  • Shift brick and mortar strategy. With challenges around bricks and mortar, brands must move to digital strategies. Transform your business along the customers’ needs. Omnichannel is the future of customer interaction.
  • Digital adoption and self-service. Increase digital adoption by creating new digital and touchless solutions and propositions. Deliver 100 percent digitised application experience using AI and ML.

In giving customer examples of business agility and resilience, Redbox’s Joseph Degaetano showed how perfume and OUD retailer Abdul Samadal Qurashi’s digital overhaul helped them navigate the pandemic problems.

When stores were forced to close due to COVID-19, the new omnichannel experience on Magento Commerce Cloud, hosted by Adobe, meant they could rely on an online revenue stream – while other companies were scrambling to improve their own systems.

He said: “Our work with ASQ has seen some staggering increases, with site visitors up by 250 percent in a quarter, 48 percent in repeat buyers, 52 percent new customers. Despite the challenges of COVID they have seen a very healthy turnover in the past few months.”

How consumer behaviour has changed since the pandemic

Are consumers shopping differently since the pandemic? How can retailers plan for the future?

In a panel on ‘How post pandemic consumer behaviour is redefining the retail landscape,’ a range of experts discussed these questions and more.

deVere Forster, COO of Dubai CommerCity, believes the future of Middle East retail is in omnichannel, with more physical retailers and malls now building digital experiences into their business models.

He said: “Consumers are still going out but not as often. Malls are looking empty, but we are seeing people out shopping. While there aren’t as many browsers, conversion rates have doubled since pre-pandemic – some conversions rates maybe 50 to 60 per cent – so people who are going out are buying. They are also spending more. They maybe go out once a month down from three to four times a month, but they are still buying the same amount in that one visit.

“The best thing the pandemic has done in terms of retail is accelerate the need for ecommerce. I’ve been in ecommerce for 20 years. It’s woken up everyone who had their heads in the sand.

“We are seeing consumers do their research online before going to the malls which means they are spending less time in public. The number of customers choosing ‘click and collect’ is also massively up. Consumers are doing their homework at home, making their order and the order is picked out in the warehouse or the store for later on. It means the consumer can come in to the store, pick it up and pay in the store. They are therefore able to spend a lot less time in the public or in the stores, but still get what they want.”

deVere believes the future of retail will look different – with ‘click and collect’ a growing sector.

He continued: “The future is bright for retail. Retailers are stronger when they have omnichannel. The consumers of tomorrow are our kids at school today and their lives revolve around their mobile phone. When they become buyers, they start the journey off online or mobile. I’m excited about it.”

Redbox's country manager, Sarmad Hassan, joins CommerCity on stage.

Redbox country manager Sarmad Hassan added: “The basics have to be there when it comes to ecommerce. The strategy has to be lean to cover your physical retail outlet, as well as online store.

“There is a change in the industry where more people are going online, but I think the industry will balance itself out. We need to be ready for that. In terms of omnichannel, retail bricks and mortar will stay, but online must be the focus, and businesses need to prioritise their digital strategy.”

Pains and gains

In a ‘fireside chat’ moderated by Redbox and involving Beside Group and Khaleej Digital, the discussion centred around the pains and gains of unifying ecommerce across multinational brands.

Beside Group marketing director Tarek Barakat advised brands to plan properly for a digital future.

He said: “In the Middle East when it comes to digital transformation, we were moving a bit slow, but Covid-19 kicked it up three notches from a speed point of view and now everyone understands the importance of it.

“When we had the Lockdown, like other partners we tried to hash out, very quickly, a simple online catalogue that allows you to purchase online through a simple payment link or gateway to provide a revenue stream when bricks and mortar were near or on zero.

“That is great in a crisis, but in parallel we should think of a more strategic approach, a long-term approach. It’s why we are relying on Redbox, Khaleej and Magento, as we want to do things right first time - so we are looking at long-term vision. You don’t want to rush it too quickly where you are making lots of adjustments in the future. You have to be both flexible, but also strategic.”

The Seamless event – built on 20 years of history - showed how quickly the ecommerce industry is changing in light of the unforeseen issues brought on by the pandemic.

With the progression of Dubai’s CommerCity and a host of regional brands embracing a digital future, next year’s participants are likely to be discussing a very different-looking Middle East, again.