Its never easy delivering a full-function e-commerce site, wherever in the world you may be, but building one for a Saudi retailer adds a whole new dimension to the challenges you can face.

Any developer will tell you that many of the problems commonly encountered when developing an e-commerce portal can be attributed to a lack of understanding by the client of what they are getting into.  So consider tackling a project as we did recently, to produce an e-commerce solution for a business based in a country where digital is new and little understood.

Wherever you are, an organised and detailed briefing process is the first step towards minimising the chasm that so often exists between client expectations and the digital world and our brief was more important than most, but even the best brief can only go so far.  Many sites that look OK at first glance are dysfunctional to some extent and very few e-stores, wherever they come from, truly deliver all they could.  However, Full Effect Marketing is about getting the Full Effect from your investment.  I don’t settle for half-measures, so our brief and the discussion that surrounded it was always going to be our most important component.

If your e-shop isn’t customer friendly it will miss sales, but if its not integrated with a robust warehouse management system, payment gateway, social media strategy, fully SEO’d and supported by a traffic-generating initiatives it will require lots of manpower and is unlikely to be viable.  Many e-commerce ventures end up costing their owners money, so if you want to get it right your starting point has to be a business plan, just like any other business.  However, don’t forget that a digital store has more and different elements and influences to a physical store so, unless you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of digital, you need to team up with a digital strategist to be sure that your project at least kicks-off with some idea of how success will be achieved.

In our case, whilst Saudis are getting the on-line shopping habit a Saudi-only portal would have been fraught with practical, as well as commercial challenges.  For example, very few Saudi homes have addresses, the postal service, such as it is, can only deliver to PO boxes and couriers don’t have the resources to track-down “The house opposite the fifteenth palm tree on the road immediately after the wrecked car on the highway from Kohobar to Riyadh” which is the best address you’ll get sometimes.  There is one courier service that has persevered at this and can now offer something of a door-to-door service, but they don’t have integration modules that work with the main e-commerce platforms, their developers are as sketchy as any in the region and building your own will be costly and frustrating.  If, as in our case, your target market is women you’ll have a whole set of social issues to deal with, like the reticence of Arab women to give personal details like phone number and e-mail address, or their reluctance to receive home deliveries if their husband isn’t in the house.  Because issues like this are far more ingrained in Saudi Arabia a Saudi-only e-shop doesn’t make much sense, but with the UAE now a major on-line market and other MENA countries getting on the band-waggon a regional approach holds real promise if you can come up with the right solution.

Payment gateways are also an issue.  Credit and debit cards aren’t as popular in the Middle East as they are in the Western world and in Saudi they are still pretty rare.  Add to this a natural distrust of banking and on-line transactions and you’ll understand why cash on delivery is the device of preference for the many on-line shoppers in the Gulf.  You simply can’t afford to ignore this option.  There aren’t many payment gateways to choose from.  Saudi businesses are always keen to partner with other Saudi businesses, even though their offerings are usually woefully inadequate.  We couldn’t find a Saudi-based partner.  The Saudi partner of a global Western-based bank for instance claims to offer a payment gateway, but it is absolute rubbish and their entire support resource is one Indian guy who does absolutely everything (when he is there!).

In the Middle East its unrealistic to think you’ll build your e-shop using local resources, but you’ll rarely find a business ready to invest the sums they’ll need to engage end-to-end Western resource.  Don’t be beguiled by the fancy graphics on the portfolios of local contractors nor sucked-in by the do-all promises of contractors from neighbouring MENA countries.  Remember, a web portal is about the bits you can’t see – anybody can make it look nice and however credible they appear, locals can rarely deliver the goods.  I am sure there are exceptions in all of these countries, but it takes too long sifting through the dross and the risk is too great to consider this option – believe me, I have tried.  Another tip is to include penalty clauses in all your contractor agreements.   As long as you manage the inter-contractor blame-game that’s inclined to ensue, you’ll discover that there’s nothing like a penalty clause to focus otherwise laisse-faire minds on a deadline.

I partnered with Western strategist Ollie Hunt who heads up From6 Digital in Bahrain.  He also handled project management.  We added local programmers, UK-based developers and a UK designer based in Bahrain.  This set-up required far more detailed and intensive management than would have been the case with a European one-stop-shop, but the result has been a world-class e-store from an investment half of that which any credible UAE-based contractors were quoting.

The next step was driving traffic to the site.  We’d already done our SEO homework, so we knew the copy on the site was pretty close to where it needed to start.  We’d avoided the often encountered pitfalls of incorporating key-words into non-searchable areas of the site, but that was just the basics.  SEO is like painting the Fourth Bridge – it’s a continual and evolving process and the rules are constantly changing.  Unless you are prepared to pay top-dollar for an in-house expert who really knows his stuff you are best partnering with a specialist consultancy.  We chose Latitude from the UK who now have a UAE office.

PPC will offer you quick and easy wins, but, remember SEO and PPC will have to be in Arabic so if you’ve already invested in a thoughtfully designed Social Media programme that might be your best first line of attack.  Social media are massive in some of these isolated markets.  We achieved 5,000 hits on our site almost immediately after announcing it on our FaceBook page, but then again, we had already taken time and trouble to make our FaceBook work as it should.  We also have set up a loyalty programme that already has over 300,000 members and the regular newsletters to these customers provides another source of site traffic.

There’s a dilemma for any retailer entering the digital arena, of course.  When your business is based on physical stores, you don’t really want to cannibalise that business, but its also true that your on-line customers will have different profiles to those shopping in your physical stores and in our case the difference is acute.  For instance, we know that a high proportion of our on-line visitors in Saudi are English-speakers, who represent less than half our physical store business.  Our on-line shoppers are younger too, partly because the incidence of educated women is far higher among the young.  Even though we have been good at using email and SMS marketing to maximise business from the traditional customer base an on-line customer is already proving to be worth more to us than a physical store shopper.

Take a look at to see how a mid-sized domestic retailer with its sights set on bigger markets can produce a digital store to rival its global competitors.

Michael Weaver
July 27, 2013

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