Everything You Need to Know about Selling in MENA

MENA

In the Everything You Need to Know series, we take a look at a specific e-commerce market to help you decide whether you should expand online sales across borders. As a provider of comprehensive payment processing services, we at DalPay specialise in cross-border commerce and have first-hand experience facilitating business in over one hundred markets worldwide.

Online marketplaces vary significantly around the world in a wide number of ways, such as their level of economic development, shopping habits, preferred payment methods, access to technologies, legality, logistics, etc. Because of this, there are a great many factors to consider when choosing which international markets to expand to. This series is designed to provide you with all the information you need to choose which countries are a good fit for your business and to begin selling across borders.

Unless otherwise noted, figures in this article are sourced from:

The MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) has the fastest growing e-commerce market in the world. Compared to the global average of 20%, MENA’s growth rate of 45% is attracting the attention of many international businesses and investors, and with 48% of online shoppers taking part in cross-border e-commerce, now is the time to expand your business to this region.

By all accounts, e-commerce in MENA is still in its early days. The region represents 33 million online shoppers, which is less than 10% of the total population, in part because of a relatively low internet penetration of 29.6%. The 15 billion USD in e-commerce sales in 2013 accounted for less than 1% of total retail sales.

Even though these numbers are relatively small when speaking on a global scale, the growth potential is huge, driven in part by the widespread adoption of smartphones, with 88.9% of internet users browsing on their mobile phones and with m-commerce (which currently accounts for over 10%) predicted to reach 20% of total e-commerce transactions before the end of 2015.

Quick Figures

  • Total population: 382 million
  • Internet penetration: 29.6% (113 million)
  • Mobile penetration: 45%
  • Online shoppers: 33 million (8.6% of population)
  • E-commerce sales: USD 15 billion
  • M-commerce sales: USD 1.8 billion (12% of total online sales)
  • E-commerce annual growth rate: 45%

Typically, each article in our “Everything You Need to Know” series will focus on a single country, but in this case we will be looking at the overall trends within the entire MENA region. Keeping in mind that each individual market is going to have its own unique benefits and drawbacks, let’s take a closer look at the market conditions and realities of selling online in MENA.

What You Need to Know

Top e-commerce categories

While fashion is one of the top performing e-commerce categories around the world and MENA is no exception, the fastest growing categories in the region are video games and the travel sector. The travel sector has been growing at a rate of 45% on average, with rates above 50% in Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The gaming market in MENA is worth 1.6 billion USD as of 2014, with 90% of the regional market controlled by international developers. While the online gaming industry is growing globally, in MENA the growth is outpacing the global average due in part to the accelerating smartphone adoption as well as the size of the under-25 demographic, which makes up 60% of the regional population.

In both of these categories, most of the money spent online is being spent across borders. In fact, 48% of all e-commerce spends in MENA are cross-border transactions, which underlines the region’s welcome to international entrants. However, to market successfully in any region, you need to provide consumers with localised options, including language, currency and preferred payment methods.

Preferred payment methods

10% of all card transactions are spent online and card-not-present transactions are growing faster than both point-of-sale and cash. However, the real distinguishing factor in MENA is the relative unpopularity of payment cards in favour of cash-on-delivery.

According to a 2013 study by Ipsos, 56% of internet users in MENA listed concerns about credit card fraud as the number one barrier to e-commerce, which may account for the fact that 70-80% of all online transactions in the region are cash-on-delivery (COD), where the payment is made directly from the purchaser to the courier when the product arrives at their door.

While e-wallet acceptance is growing and several local online payment gateways have been launched, as long as COD remains the preferred payment method, international merchants are going to have a few additional concerns. Aside from finding a courier you can trust to collect payments for your products, COD can also have a significant impact on your cashflow since couriers may take as long as a month or more to deliver the funds.

Cybercrime & m-commerce

The good news is that the fraud rate in MENA is very low at 3 cents per $100, half the global average of 6 cents per $100. While a public lack of confidence in the security of online payments within the region remains a barrier, the reality that online transactions are relatively secure will attract more business to the region and bring more consumers online.

Meanwhile, consumer confidence in online payments may already be growing, according to a recent survey on m-commerce reported by the Gulf Times. 75% of respondents felt local websites to be secure and 69% expressed a preference for payment cards over cash.

This coincides with the recent trend for consumers in the region to view mobile payment options as a key factor in their choice of merchant, as highlighted by the Everything Mobile forum in Qatar. Because the infrastructure to support m-payments has not yet been adequately development by local banks and payment providers, the rapid growth in mobile penetration has driven more consumers to cross-border e-commerce to find merchants who support m-commerce.

MENA E-Commerce in Brief

Pros:

  • 33 million potential customers
  • Fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world
  • Low fraud rates
  • Widespread acceptance of international merchants

Cons:

  • Payment infrastructure underdeveloped
  • Logistical challenges relating to the preference for cash-on-delivery
  • Regulatory requirements vary from country to country

The e-commerce market in the Middle East and North Africa is on the verge of ripening and now is the time to invest. The growth potential is considerable as there are over 300 million people in MENA, most of them under 25, and businesses have an opportunity now to meet their needs and gain their loyalties.

However, it still remains an emerging market with some very really barriers. Second only to concerns about credit card fraud, the Ipsos study showed that 37% of respondents are “wary that the product will not have a return policy if they don’t like it.” Coupled with the popularity of COD payments, this could turn shipping logistics into a major headache.

Language is also a key driver, as it is most everywhere. Despite the overall success of international merchants in the region, one of the reasons why e-commerce giants like Amazon have not been able to unseat the local mass merchant Souq is because they have failed to offer adequate language and currency support.

Despite these barriers, the region provides considerable room for growth andnumerous market segments that are underserved, compared to most mature e-commerce markets. By expanding your business into MENA, you have an opportunity to gain significant traction as the region matures into a global e-commerce force.

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