Invisible barriers to accelerated digital shopping adoption

When shedding light on consumer shopping behavior across the MENA region, the gap between the experiences of brick and mortar shopping versus digital shopping can never be bridged easily, even amongst the biggest sale and shopping frequency categories, such as electronics and apparel. From a landscape view and despite the fact that retail ecommerce sales in the region are estimated to have reached $49 billion a year by 2021, Arab consumers still retain strongly-held barriers, combined with skeptical notions, incorrect perceptions and feelings that prevent them from fully embracing digital shopping.

Earlier this year, the Choueiri Group research team conducted a study in KSA, the UAE and Egypt, to gain a better understanding of the retail e-com landscape across each of these markets, as well as consumers’ behavior and mindset.

What is stopping them?

The research study revealed a number of barriers with the data showing that being ‘unbanked’ or financially excluded (where consumers assume that they cannot buy products online if they don’t have a credit card or bank account) stand out quite prominently. Despite the fact that most e-commerce platforms offer shoppers the option of cash-on-deliver (COD), it is interesting to note that two out of ten Egyptians and 18% of the Saudi sample claimed that they do not shop online due to being financially excluded. 11% in KSA also stated that they prefer to pay in cash only, and this is why they do not consider digital shopping. Cash is still the prevalent purchasing method in the MENA region, even across the more economically developed markets. According to the Saudi Communication and Information Technology Commission, 66% used cash-on-delivery as a payment method to make digital purchases, which ranks as the second most popular payment method after credit cards (87%). When connecting the dots, we can conclude that there is an awareness issue, as well as an educational element that needs to be actuated with regard to payments in particular.

Trust, however; is the top barrier amongst all others and it is necessary to understand what this really means, as it may take on various significations within consumers’ mindsets. In KSA, the need to touch and inspect an item firsthand, in order to have some kind of assurance, creates an obstacle to shopping online for more than a quarter of the consumers. A similar proportion (25%) distrust online shopping in general. Moreover, concerns about accidentally buying fake items were raised by 15% of the sample group, while the questionable quality of online products was cited by 12% of the research participants. Other related barriers such as worries about sharing personal information, or products not looking the same in reality, all contribute to trust being identified as the ultimate barrier. Even in the UAE where digital shopping penetration (53%) is healthier than in the KSA (43%) and Egypt (17%), trust came up again, with nearly three out of ten unable to trust shopping for products online.

Lots of Arab consumers who belong to the non-digital shopper segment, are still driven by the enjoyment of the physical experience or the traditional way of buying. As per our findings in the UAE, shoppers remain hesitant about considering online shopping, as they prefer the ‘convenience’ of visiting the store, trying on the product, human interaction with sales staff and the instant retrieval of the purchased item, as opposed to delayed deliveries. This highlights the fact that Arab consumers (whether they are active digital shoppers or not), continue to embrace the bricks and mortar shopping experience, especially where high-value, premium items are concerned.

How convenience and price are driving growth

While online shopping penetration is relatively speaking, either in its infancy or pre-mature stages (depending on the country we’re looking at in the region), many shoppers are changing their behavior and moving away from traditional, physical, stores. Just under half of online shoppers said that they were motivated by e-commerce platforms and their ability to help them locate hard-to-find items. On average, 27% are triggered to buy online in order to source products available only outside of their city or country of residence.

Being able to shop 24/7 is also encouraging many people to shop online, with an average of 43% of consumers identifying this as a motivating factor. There is no doubt that online shopping offers the benefit of convenience. Besides the ability to shop at any time, in the UAE 42% are motivated by the convenience of ‘everything being available in one marketplace’. This is tied in with the greater product variety and selection (24%) which platforms can offer these days. Furthermore, over a third choose to shop online in order to save time and avoid crowds and check-out lines. In the UAE’s fast-moving urban environment, where road congestion is common during peak hours, this aspect of online shopping comes in handy and nothing is more convenient than having an online purchased items delivered to your doorstep while relaxing at home.

Fortunately, the promising future of retail e-commerce in the region has stimulated many entrepreneurs to establish new platforms and become part of the entire ecosystem. In addition, bricks and mortar brands are also creating their branded digital shopping destinations. Together, this has led to more competitiveness, and consequently different propositions by players have manifested in reduced prices, special offers and vouchers, free shipping and loyalty programs. Looking at the KSA market, which has more e-commerce platforms as compared to Egypt, some platforms are fulfilling the needs of specific online shoppers across dedicated categories such as fashion, beauty, electronics, gaming and home accessories. This landscape can therefore be described as more dissected, yet not necessarily saturated. From a consumer perspective, this has enabled multiple choices for shoppers and has placed pricing at the forefront of competition. Our research unveiled that better prices serve as a motivating factor to shop online for 43% of consumers in KSA.

The role of e-commerce platforms goes beyond being just a marketplace

We’ve seen this crop up in other category-led research studies, which were conducted recently with the aim of better understanding the full consumer journey. The role of e-commerce platforms is substantial in the consumer path-to-purchase journey, as they become important digital touchpoints throughout the different stages of their journey, from research to consideration, and from reassurance to conversion. Based on our research on the ‘beauty - skincare’ category, conducted in Q1 2019, 23% of females in KSA go to online shopping destinations to learn more about product and skincare brands, while 45% mentioned that product reviews featured on e-commerce platforms influenced their buying decision and helped create interest towards specific brands. In another research we carried out on smartphones in the UAE and KSA, a quarter of the consumers referred to the reviews and product details on e-commerce sites to create their consideration set.

Online grocery in MENA Region

This category is still in its infancy phase and remains the least active in terms of frequency in KSA – only 6% of digital shoppers purchase grocery. It is however, predicted to grow in the UAE, having already witnessed a rise from 8% in 2017 to 12% in 2018 (similar to the trend in France). The ‘freshness’ of groceries did not emerge as a strong enough reason for not considering online grocery, as was presumed in the null hypothesis. The actual reason for the lack of consideration turned out to be a strong preference for physically examining and selecting groceries (84%), followed by the absence of such services (28%) and pricing (24%). It’s also interesting to know that the absence of such services came up, despite a few well-established app-based online grocery services currently operating, although their operational coverage may not be comprehensive enough. Reducing costs and making such services more accessible could help to drive digital grocery shopping into the future.

How purposeful communications can catalyze non-digital-shoppers

In summary, there are knowledge gaps among consumers that need to be filled. The added-value and clear benefits of online shopping need to be communicated to those who are still skeptical. Deep inside the minds of consumers a number of faulty perceptions associated with digital shopping exist. These are magnifying their invisible barriers around trust, convenience or the tricky need to own a bank account. Within the solid infrastructure which the region has achieved today, e-commerce players are swiftly innovating solutions to make the online shopping experience smooth and seamless, but further efforts are needed by e-commerce brands to shift the game, in collaboration with their media partners and communications experts. Based on the research findings, we recommend educational content and even a ‘back-to-basics’ kind of approach to address grey areas and fill-in any necessary gaps. At the same time, combining this approach with uplifting content to capture audiences on an emotional level will ultimately support the drive towards greater behavioral change.   


Research methodology: online quantitative | data collection is Survey based | Sample sizes: EGYPT n= 1350, KSA n= 850, UAE n= 400 | The sample is representative of the online population in each country.  


  • Choueiri Group 2019 Research: E-com, Skincare, Make-up, Smartphone
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