Noon is the latest multi-brand etail platform to launch in the Middle East, offering new opportunities for UK brands.
The Middle East is undergoing an ecommerce boom. With an estimated total population of 371 million, the region includes oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain.
Half of the population is under the age of 24 and, as McKinsey & Company reports smartphone penetration levels being up to 100% in Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, compared with 80% in the US and 85% in the UK, it is a market ripe for growth.
The Middle East’s online shopping market is already huge, at $5.3bn (£4bn ) in 2015, and consultancy firm AT Kearney anticipates that it will grow to $20bn (£15.2bn) by 2020.
Young consumers are trend and value hungry, and take a growing interest in international brands. To reach them, UK brands are working with local ecommerce marketplaces.
The latest entrant to the market – the £1bn “Arabic first” platform, Noon – launched at the end of September with an impressive array of global brands. It joins the Amazon-owned Souq and young fashion force Namshi as ecommerce powerhouses in the region.
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Hosting more than 8.4 million products, across areas including fashion, beauty, electronics and supermarket goods, Souq dominates the Middle East ecommerce market. An estimated 78% of the region’s online sales are thought to take place via the site, which clocks up more than 45 million visits per month.
In March this year, ecommerce behemoth Amazon bought Souq, in a deal reported to be worth $650m (£496m), which Ronaldo Mouchawar, co-founder and CEO of Souq, described as a “milestone for the online shopping space in the region”.
“Joining the Amazon family will enable us to drive further growth, benefit from its technological investment, offer an even wider product selection through worldwide sourcing and deliver an enhanced customer service experience,” he commented when the takeover was announced.
Dubai-based Souq was founded in 2005 and has localised operations in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, comprising warehouses and delivery fleets. It also ships to Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. The Souq Fashion site stocks brands including Boohoo, DKNY, Gant and New Look.
The marketplace set-up works similarly to that of Amazon: some products “fulfilled by Souq” are stocked and shipped from retailers’ own warehouses, while independent sellers can also sell through the site.
Brand insight: Gio Najar, director at Chi Chi London, stocked on Souq.com for a year and a half
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What was the appeal of the market for Chi Chi London?
I think the Middle East is perfect for Chi Chi product: it’s dressy and the customers love brands from overseas. We have not had a huge presence in the market, but it is something we’re looking to grow.
Why did you decide to sell through sites such as Souq rather than setting up your own ecommerce site?
I think it’s important to have other stockists and large retailers holding the product: this allows the brand to have better visibility in the market. I would always say your stockists are just as important as your own ecommerce site. Once you see a large amount of traction on the product, then it’s the time to launch your own ecommerce site.
What are some of the benefits of selling through Souq?
It’s great to have Souq holding the brand and providing visibility in the Middle East. We have not had a huge presence in the market, but it’s something we are looking to grow. We have seen an increase in sales from stockists of the brand. Souq allows consumers to trial the product with confidence, and then hopefully they can start purchasing through Chi Chi’s own site, as well as partner sites.
How is the ecommerce market different in the Middle East to the UK?
The only difference I see is the product selection would be tailored for the consumer in the Middle East.
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Dubai-based Namshi launched in 2012 and considers itself as one of the first multi-brand fast fashion sites in the Middle East. Unlike Noon and Souq, Namshi stocks purely fashion, including brands such as Adidas, Mango, Forever 21, Missguided and New Look. The site stocks around 70,000 products from 600 brands – a scale that managing director Hosam Arab describes as approaching that of Asos. Saudi Arabia and UAE are its biggest markets, although it also ships to Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. Earlier this year, a 51% stake in the business was bought by Dubai’s Emaar Malls, the company behind the launch of Noon, for $151m.
Etailer insight: Hosam Arab, managing director of Namshi
We started as the only full-price, in-season retailer in the region – as opposed to what was available at the time, which was largely off-season, flash Sales and discounted fashion retailers. We very quickly were able to differentiate ourselves from the market and build a name as a destination for fashion for the young, online crowd.
Our biggest consumer segment is 18-to-24-year-olds and, typically, our biggest brands are fast fashion and trend led. Our consumers are looking for trends or an affordable price point so they can purchase more often. They’re look for celebrity-backed items and celebrity-inspired looks.
We focus very much on the UK high street brands and segments, which is a constantly growing area for us and for our customers. New Look and Dorothy Perkins do well for us. Ted Baker is growing.
The Middle East ecommerce market has huge potential for UK retailers. Online is an easy access point where they can promote and grow their brand. Missguided, for example, has grown substantially with us in the past year and a half. I don’t think others who decide to go it alone have seen the results that would warrant their investment, or excite them too much about the market.
As the ecommerce sector has grown, it has become a lot more challenging to differentiate ourselves. Our strength is that branded segment. It’s not easy to get access to these brands and we continue to build on that assortment, so it’s a key focus and a key differentiator.
The other aspect is our service. The fact that we own the inventory goes a very long way to ensure we are able to serve the consumers as well as we can. We have our own local distribution centres, and in the UAE, for example, we’re offering same-day free delivery and returns.
One of the challenges in this market is that the logistics infrastructure is not as mature as in other markets. We’ve had to build our own distribution. That is a key differentiator when it comes to the global competition, and also some of the local companies, which aren’t able to build their own logistics.
The newcomer to the Middle East ecommerce market, Noon, went live at the end of September 2017. It currently only ships within the UAE, but will launch in Saudi Arabia by the end of the year.
Much of the attention on the venture has been drawn by the team and investors behind the business. The site was founded by billionaire businessman Mohamed Alabbar, chairman of Dubai-based Emaar Properties, the development company behind the city state’s famous Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
The site had raised $1bn (£762m) of investment ahead of launch from backers including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and MH Alshaya, which is the franchise partner of H&M, Coast, Dorothy Perkins and Debenhams in the region.
After an initial January launch date was postponed, the past nine months brought a corporate and boardroom change, including an 51% acquisition of young fashion site Namshi. Noon is now headed by former Namshi managing director Faraz Khalid.
The marketplace-style site, which allows independent sellers to retail through the Noon site, sells electronics, homeware, beauty and groceries alongside fashion. It launched with an immediately impressive portfolio of brands including Nike, New Look and Converse.
In its quest to tap into the ecommerce market, logistics and infrastructure are a focus, and the business has dedicated delivery fleets and a high-tech, 3.5m sq ft fulfilment centre in Dubai.
Founder Alabbar commented in a statement that he is “committed to making Noon the region’s Arabic-first ecommerce platform. As digital technologies cause disruptions across industries and geographies, it is important for us to shape a digital marketplace that is relevant to our local markets and serves as a growth platform for bricks-and-mortar retailers.”