BEIRUT: The MENA region is currently seeing rapid growth of online retail sales, according to a 2018 report by Research and Markets.
In the UAE, which is currently leading the market, B2C E-Commerce sales doubled between 2015 and 2017, with a projection of further growth at annual rates above 20 percent through 2021.
Meanwhile, neighboring Saudi Arabia is expected to see even higher growth rates and overtake the UAE as the largest online retail market of the Gulf by the turn of this decade.
The combined e-commerce sales of the Gulf countries are expected to more than double between 2017 and 2020.
“The main growth drivers include high rates of Internet connectivity among the population, reaching above 90 percent in countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE,” the report highlighted.
In Lebanon, the online travel sector is still larger than online sales of physical goods, although clothing overtook airline tickets as the most popular online shopping category in 2017.
“A number of barriers still remain on Lebanon’s path to online retail boom, which includes the prevalence of cash on delivery over other payment methods and consumer wariness of safety of e-commerce and online payment transactions,” the report said.
Shoppers are beginning to warm up to the idea of online shopping, though the tradition of brick and mortar shopping remains strong.
Retail e-commerce sales in the countries of the Middle East are projected to increase significantly between 2017 and 2020. The main impulse for the rapid growth is increased Internet penetration, already surpassing 90 percent in many nations of the region.
Two Lebanese entrepreneurs are looking to ride this wave of exponential growth in the region but from a different perspective.
Julien Fayad and Emile Boustani decided to step into this sector from a service perspective, rather than jumping right in with their very own e-commerce platform.
The duo developed ShopBuilder.me, a platform targeted at providing online merchants a platform to sell their goods that can be constructed within 10 minutes.
“Nowadays, setting up an e-commerce platform is expensive and hard to initially set up,” Fayad told Annahar, adding that “the cost of building a website and maintaining it breaks the bank, and securing shipping methods is relatively hard to set up in the beginning.”
Fayad explained that a lot of people are now relying more on social media outlets, such as Facebook and Instagram, to sell their products, without having a legitimate website for their products which is considered inefficient.
Their platform enables people to set up and start selling their products from the first day of its conception. “When signing up, a series of questions addressed to the merchants allow ShopBuilder.me to create and build the e-commerce website of your choice,” Boustani said.
The platform offers services that cater to both veteran merchants as well as the new kid on the block, where it provides its own shipping arrangements labeled ‘ShopBuilder Ship’ and its own payment method labeled ShopBuilder Pay, while also allowing the more established e-merchants to set up their own payment and shipping methods.
“What we tried to do is basically make e-commerce as simple as it gets, even when people are setting up their website, there is an assistance that helps them throughout every step of the customization and explains how everything works in detail,” Fayad said.
ShopBuilder offers a setlist of plans for people to choose from, including a free pack that allows merchants to have up to 25 products on display, abandoned cart recovery, and the complete tools to set up shop and test the waters of certain ideas in mind.
“The free pack is made for anyone, even if you don’t have a company, you can open an online store that would be able to start selling and shipping worldwide from the first day, you will be able to collect credit card payments but being restricted to our services,” Fayad added.
The advantages of this are that people can skip a big portion of the process, by having no contact with the bank and shipping lines, thus making it more plug & play.
“Since the free pack will not cost merchants anything to set up, we charge a commission on sales for the products sold through the platform at a rate of five percent on credit card transactions and two percent on cash on delivering payments,” the co-founder highlighted.
According to Boustani, people who would want to try out the free pack are the ones that want to validate their business idea to see if it can gain traction within the market or people that have a limited inventory or products they want to showcase and sell.
Cash on delivery is still considered the highest forms of transactions in e-commerce to date, since more than 70 percent of e-commerce payments happen through cash on delivery processes in Lebanon, according to Fayad.
“When we studied both the local and regional market, it was clear that cash on delivery is still a big thing, which is why we integrated it into our technology,” Fayad said, adding that “merchants have the ability to disable this option and make their online store to be strictly done through online payments.”
He also noted that through their observation, both co-founders consider that Lebanese customers are afraid of buying from Lebanese merchants. “Lebanese people, however, aren’t afraid of online shopping with western merchants, and Netflix is your biggest example, so there is a big lack of trust between local customers and their merchants,” Fayad explained.
The homegrown co-founders are currently looking to outreach with local startup incubators and accelerators, to help up and coming e-commerce platforms build a website with minimal cost and ease.
“We are also looking to help a number of NGOs in the country that are making an effort into gathering artisans that can’t afford to have a website, or wouldn’t know how to operate it,” Fayad told Annahar.
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