Identifying the Latest Digital Trends and Opportunities in UAE Retail—Part 2

Even after the pandemic subsides, UAE retailers who continue to rely on in-store sales will have a negative impact on their revenues...

Welcome to the second part of our exploration of the future of retail in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the previous post, we showed you why digital transformation is vital to the survival and success of the country’s retailers during and after COVID. You also gained insights into the key cultural trends and digital challenges these businesses must address to remain competitive.

This article examines the digital trends and opportunities that can help UAE retailers plan successful digital transformation programs. To wrap this series up, we also provide actionable insights to further help with the planning, implementation, and deployment of these programs.

Even after the pandemic subsides, UAE retailers who continue to rely on in-store sales will have a negative impact on their revenues. Tech-savvy retailers who can implement digital solutions into their existing business models will gain access to lucrative online and mobile marketing opportunities.

A spring 2019 report by Blis and Sapio indicates that 86% of UAE consumers use their mobile phones while shopping, primarily to do price comparisons.1 Making purchasing decisions based on price and value for money, these shoppers prefer to go to brick-and-mortar shops to check product quality first-hand before paying. While less than half of consumers prefer to buy from bigger stores that provide both digital and in-store buying options, this comes out to a considerable audience — 96% of the UAE population uses smartphones, and 91% of this group use mobile devices to browse the Internet.

Digital opportunities

These trends offer substantial opportunities for retailers to acquire and retain customers through mobile marketing strategies and smart use of location data. Those who have launched mobile campaigns have been successful, as 83% of the Bliss and Sapio survey respondents report that mobile adverts have influenced them to visit shops to look for the advertised products while they have been out. An impressive 94% state they have made the trip to the closest store to buy the advertised products.

Despite a drop in their household income, 62% of Middle East consumers remain cautiously optimistic, according to a 2020 PWC report.2 With this optimism comes a shift in the way they have been shopping during the pandemic, with a growing number of consumers making purchases via smartphones (53%), computers (39%), and tablets (31%).

Breaking this down into a few major retail segments, PWC reports that 92% of people who are currently buying their groceries online or by phone say they will keep doing so once the pandemic has subsided. On top of this, 61% of Middle East consumers are spending more on groceries than they had prior to COVID. At the same time, 41% are spending more on entertainment and media, while 50% have cut their clothing and footwear expenditures.

Retailers in the health sector are also capturing a greater share of wallet, with 85% of consumers spending more on their physical health and 83% spending more on their mental health. These are just a few retail segments that stand to benefit from a well-planned, executed, and measured digital strategy.

Online sales opportunities

With more consumers shopping online, retailers are accelerating their digital transformation plans. Middle East retailers that have e-commerce solutions in place are seeing an increase in online sales. For example, Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim, which operates 27 malls, including Mall of the Emirates, reported a 59% year-on-year increase in online shoppers in 2020.3** **Since the pandemic, online sales for Saudi Arabia's BinDawood Holding have grown by 200%.

To leverage these opportunities, brick-and-mortar retailers need to develop or improve their online presence as soon as possible. However, digital transformation can be a costly venture for brick-and-mortar retailers who are losing revenue to lockdowns and closures. To reduce the cost and accelerate deployment of their online presence, retailers can team up with existing e-commerce platforms providers to enable customers to shop virtually. To achieve the same goal cost-effectively, UAE retailers can also partner with innovation studios that have the technology and know-how to set up, launch, and maintain such platforms.


Mobile technologies have become vital to increasing UAE customer engagement and acquisition. Retailers can also glean valuable insights from location- and demographic-based data to help them better understand their audiences — who they are, and when, why, and how they are most likely to make purchases. These insights can help marketers create and launch more effective targeted advertising campaigns.

As more shoppers are using their mobiles for price comparisons, retailers could also offer them the opportunity to make their purchases directly online so they can either have their goods delivered to them or pick them up in-store. The latter option still allows them to check their purchases, while the former requires a return policy that demands little effort from the customer. Retailers without a capable e-commerce infrastructure in place could very well see potential revenue going to competitors that have solid digital strategies in place.

Social buying

China and the UAE share a similar shopping culture, in which the social aspect of visiting a shop, market, or mall is a vital part of the shopping experience. Aware that e-commerce platforms lack this aspect, China-based Pinduoduo is offering Chinese consumers a solution.4 The social buying application enables shoppers to form groups to make bulk purchases directly from manufacturers. This cuts out intermediaries, offering consumers lower prices while increasing margins for brands. At the same time, shoppers can not only interact with fellow buyers, they can also haggle with sellers in a virtual setting that gives all parties the connection they get through in-person shopping.

As intermediaries, UAE retailers do not benefit from the Pinduoduo model; however, they can adopt and modify it to offer a similar group shopping experience through their e-commerce platforms. Social buying apps are more advantageous for smaller businesses and entrepreneurs who wish to build strong relationships with customers and sell to them directly. In addition to generating revenue, these apps also supply their users with an abundance of valuable consumer data.

Application communication and social targeting

The increased use of messaging applications in the Middle East is noteworthy. The above-mentioned PWC report indicates that 71% of the region's consumers have been using messaging apps more frequently since the COVID outbreak, and 54% are spending more time speaking with friends and family through video chat apps like Zoom, House Party, and Skype. These figures give retailers a clear view of how their customers prefer to communicate, either via chat or video chat.

PWC also reports that 95% of Middle East consumers who spend more time on social media now say they will continue to do so to the same extent post-pandemic. This offers retailers a wealth of opportunities to develop and launch precisely targeted marketing campaigns.

Digital influencers, brand ambassadors, and livestreaming

UAE retailers that want to innovate their customer experiences can also look to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. A growing number of brands are working with brand ambassadors and digital influencers to produce and livestream in-store fashion shows, collaborations, product launches, and other events. Some have successfully experimented with livestreaming in the digital space, like Fortnite did when it hosted a Travis Scott concert. Retailers can broadcast equally engaging events in their virtual stores.

Actionable insights

As they build and activate their digital transformation strategies, UAE retailers are gaining access to innovative approaches to customer service and engagement.

Adopt technology to create a consistent brand experience across channels

In the UAE, retailers and shoppers alike have become aware that the overall brand experience is a seamless combination of in-store and digital experiences, the latter being made up of digital advertising, social media engagement, and e-commerce.5 To succeed, online platforms need to be innovative in terms of design, checkout and billing processes, and delivery and returns policies.

To align their in-store and digital shopping experiences, UAE retailers can leverage their online presence to streamline the purchasing process. Cultural trends notwithstanding, consumers have grown accustomed to browsing and/or buying online then paying and/or picking up in-store or having their purchases delivered directly to them. Even after malls and stores reopen their doors when it is deemed safe to do so, shopper demand for this added convenience is likely to remain high.

Digital channels also offer opportunities to engage with shoppers as individuals and communities. Via their online platforms, UAE retailers can host webinars and virtual workshops for consumers with shared interests to congregate and learn from retailers and each other. To further enhance the digital experience, boost brand engagement, and crowdsource customer insights, stores can also host discussion forums on their online platforms.

Unify data management and analysis

To better understand and cater to consumer shopping behaviors, UAE retailers should use data analytics solutions. The insights they gain from these tools will help them

  • Predict and prepare for future customer demand
  • Price and market products
  • Optimize supply chains and staffing requirements
  • Increase operational efficiencies6

Support customer safety and privacy

Rapid financial recovery from COVID-related closures and lockdowns will require many UAE retailers to rethink their omnichannel approach. Those who still lack an omnichannel sales and marketing strategy will need to adopt one swiftly.7 Before and since the pandemic, retailers in other markets have been innovating "to meet customers at the intersection of safety and convenience."8

For instance, virtual showrooms give shoppers an interactive online buying experience that allows them to explore and buy products safely anytime, anywhere, on any device. Expanding on this, virtual fitting rooms could offer shoppers a safe way to try on clothes and footwear. The technology is making headlines in America, where Florida-based start-up FIT:Match has used 3D technology to develop a solution that scans a customer's body in less than one minute, then tells them their size for clothes from different clothing brands.

U+ can help UAE retailers innovate

By applying the U+ Method, we can help UAE retailers plan, implement, and improve digital transformation programs to ensure they meet their strategic objectives and deliver fast ROI. Our four-step product development methodology focuses on executing the risky stages of product development before initiating large build–outs.

  1. Value proposition

    We conduct initial idea validation and market testing, during which we evaluate whether an idea satisfies the wants and needs of a specific market and target demographics.

  2. Product definition

    When we find a market-verified value proposition, we define the product and determine ways of taking it to the market. During this stage, we build prototypes, run smoke tests (a software testing process that determines the stability of a software build), and evaluate launch channels and features.

  3. MVP Launch

    Our developers and designers build a minimum viable product (MVP) as we simultaneously move to launch with early customers.

  4. Further iterations

    When the MVP launch goes well, we scale up the product based on market feedback. This stage typically includes support for internal operational processes and product modifications based on early customer feedback.


  1. The real retail story EMEA

  2. Consumers increasingly shopping online

  3. DFF Covid19 Retail

  4. The Future of Retail in the UAE - Through COVID-19 and Beyond

  5. Top 5 retail customer experience cx strategies for 2020

  6. Retail analytics

  7. Adapting to the next normal in retail the customer experience imperative

  8. Retailers must meet consumers at the intersection of safety and convenience

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