The GCC e-commerce market is set to become one of the fastest-growing in the world, swelling to $20 billion a year by 2020, according to global consultancy A.T. Kearney.

That would represent an astonishing four-fold increase in the size of the market in just four years. It’s the reason why e-commerce giants are racing to put down roots in the region, and why new digital marketplaces are sprouting up. The Middle East is poised to experience an e-commerce boom. How can you make sure your business is prepared?

The backdrop

The growth in Middle East e-commerce is constrained for the moment by a shortage of financial and logistics infrastructure. But policymakers in Dubai and other key markets want to become e-commerce hubs and are trying to attract investment in the sector by simplifying and fast-tracking business registration and permits for physical assets such as warehousing, office space and vehicles. Indeed, investment is pouring in, as demonstrated by Amazon’s $580 million acquisition of Souq and successful efforts by Mumzworld, Awok and Namshi to attract funding.

Middle East consumers do have some idiosyncrasies – they retain a preference for cash payments, for instance, and have indicated deep concern about online security. For these and other reasons, many successful retailers in the region have not felt the urgency to bring their goods to the online market. So despite its potential, the e-commerce sector currently makes up less than 1% of the GCC region’s GDP, according to tech advisory firm Gartner.

The e-opportunity

How can SMEs ride the region’s e-commerce wave? First, they need to understand a few facts about the region’s fast-changing landscape.

  • Big + Global is not always an advantage. Mastercard reports that 54% of consumers in the Middle East and North Africa prefer shopping on local websites to buying on foreign ones. This means there is an opportunity for local SMEs to be “first movers” and carve out a piece of the market before the giants get established.
  • The shopping mall is changing. Stores in the gleaming shopping mega-malls across the Middle East are doubling as e-commerce fulfilment centers for online shoppers who want same-day and next-day delivery along with easy returns. At the same time, malls themselves are being transformed from traditional rack-and-shelf shopping space to leisure destinations emphasizing dining and “experiential” options such as indoor skiing, wall climbing and waterparks. Reem Mall, under construction in Abu Dhabi, is a prime example of this new mall experience.
  • Creative upstarts can come out on top. E-commerce marketers have disrupted or obliterated the business model in a number of categories where established players became complacent. In the United States alone, there are several interesting examples: pet supply store Chewy, razor subscription service Dollar Shave Club, mattress supplier Caspar and furniture store Wayfair.

Markets in different shapes, sizes

SME sellers looking to go digital in the Middle East have to figure out whether it makes sense to develop their own digital stores, to sell in third-party marketplaces devoted to a narrow product range, or go rely on large players that offer a wide array of product lines and feature competing sellers.

They need to understand whether how they’re going to handle cross-border shipments, warehousing, delivery, customer service, fulfilment and returns. They need to know the costs and benefits of using a global provider, a local one or a go-it-alone approach.

Amazon and Alibaba have their advantages, but that also makes it hard for them to fully penetrate or offer a satisfying online experience in certain product categories and markets. Businesses with specialized products and extensive ranges within those specialties often can use their expertise to create advantage.

The market for soft furnishings such as sofas, armchairs and made-to-measure curtains is one example of a category in which big players often struggle to compete with local-market leaders. These products are often tailored or customized to the buyer’s taste and only finished once the customer places the order. Giant e-commerce companies generally don’t provide customization options because they don’t specialize in these products.

The future of e-commerce in the Middle East

At Agility, we see huge e-commerce potential for SMEs in emerging markets. The unique conditions in many Gulf countries make the region a particularly exciting and urgent prospect. Logistics providers are now offering technology-driven solutions to SMEs that help them overcome the logistics challenges of e-commerce, with digital freight platforms, such as Shipa Freight, allowing companies to get rate quotes and book, pay and track air and ocean shipments with a few clicks.

SMEs looking to grow their online sales can benefit from partnering with logistics companies that have robust infrastructure and e-commerce expertise. First movers will have a crucial advantage if can they find partners who help them manage inventory, deliveries and returns for maximum efficiency.

To learn more about how Agility is supporting the growth of SMEs worldwide visit our Shipa Freight website, where you can read our global study Ship for Success that examines the trade patterns and barriers of SMEs.