Changing consumer behaviour during the pandemic

Shailesh Dash

The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way businesses are conducted, bringing about a shift in strategies as consumer sentiment continues to transform amid the rising uncertainty.

Prolonged lockdown reinforcements and travel restrictions are reshaping consumer behaviour, which is expected to have a long-term impact. As they strive to adapt to the new normal, themes such as changing to less expensive products, mindful spend of money, and convenience over brand loyalty have taken center-stage. On the other hand, dramatic declines in industries such as travel & tourism, leisure, and retail activities including brick-and-mortar stores, restaurants & bars, and cinemas, among others, have resulted in high volumes of pent-up demand through the online channel.

This, in turn, has materialized into a flight to digital platforms across the e-commerce, online education, and content streaming sphere. The accelerated pace of digitalisation and technological innovation has played a critical role in this massive upheaval, and companies are increasingly using technology to enable faster and more efficient offerings across verticals. Consequently, industries across the globe are forced to rethink their business models to stay relevant and sustainable amid this changing landscape.

The climate within the GCC has been no different, rather the pandemic’s impact has been more profound due to the renewed challenges arising from lower oil prices. Amid the extended period of lockdown in the region, the pandemic has brought several major shifts in the consumer attitude including increased propensity towards digital usage. The urban consumers of GCC, especially those working from home and reluctant to step out for essentials, have moved online for entertainment and their shopping needs. Taking cognizance of the situation, the region has been swift in adapting to the changes by embracing technology and exploring a host of new opportunities in the digital domain.

The region’s e-commerce sector is witnessing colossal growth as major retailers shift to online platforms to boost sales, while the integration of self-service and contactless payment options have boosted revenues multifold. For example, both Danube Group and Sun & Sand Sports witnessed a 500x rise in online sales during the pandemic. Experts now project the GCC e-commerce market to reach $19.7 billion by end of 2020, primarily spurred by Covid-19. Meanwhile, increased self-isolation and longer durations at home have prompted a sharp surge in digital content consumption in the GCC, with digital streaming services recording remarkable growth during the pandemic.

In the UAE, OTT video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime recorded double-digit growth in the number of users in March 2020 (+16 per cent, 17 per cent, and 22 per cent M-o-M growth in YouTube, Facebook and Twitter users, respectively), further offering insights into the scope of this sector.

The region must now closely gauge the underlying shift in consumer behavior and buying trends, and capitalize on opportunities to spur domestic startups that cater to new avenues with rising demand. For instance, the growth in GCC digital content consumption presents a strong case for the emergence of local OTT platforms offering tailored content. During the pandemic, Dubai-based digital content provider Starz Play witnessed a 141 per cent rise in unique users across the Mena region. A notable mention outside the region is Malaysia’s newly launched halal-TV streaming platform Nurflix, which has attracted over 10,000 subscribers since July 2020.

The growing demand for digital media in the GCC could also incite niche startups such as Dubai’s Arabic-media monitoring platform Crowd Analyzer, and the newly launched Shashah.com – an online Arabic and English guide for movies and television entertainment for viewers. In tandem with the ongoing crisis, self-care and health monitoring have also risen in significance recently. Accordingly, the GCC has witnessed rising adoption of self-diagnostic apps and devices, as well as digital consultations, e-pharmacy sales, telemedicine, and other virtual care offerings.

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The strong presence of HealthTech startups in the region and continued investor interest in this sector hold huge potential for future growth prospects. Similarly, the shift to remote lifestyles has also impacted education for millions of students, prompting an unequivocal shift to e-learning platforms in the region. Encouraged by the changing dynamics due to the pandemic, the GCC’s EdTech sector that has been evolving swiftly over the last few years, has now gained further acceleration as more pupil embrace e-learning.

Growing adoption of distance learning, together with rising demand for quality education, offer plenty incentives to capitalize on with platforms offering relevant, contextual, inclusive and affordable education and training. Investors have also expressed significant interest in this segment recently, with robust fundraising activity in regional start-ups including Aanaab’s $1.5 million and Abwaab’s $2.4 million raised in March 2020.

Regional entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists should also shift their attention to newer sectors, such as home improvement, which has been rapidly gaining prominence since March 2020. The shift towards work from home amid corporate closure has led to a spike in home improvement projects as consumer spending patterns move away from other forms of discretionary spending.

For instance, US-based home improvement major Home Depot recorded a rise of 23.4 per cent Y-o-Y in Q2 2020 sales, with net earnings rising by 22.8 per cent Y-o-Y to reach $4.3 billion. Within the GCC, high income levels and superior standards of living, coupled with Covid-19-induced lockdowns and restrictions on travel and leisure activities, present a lucrative opportunity for the emergence of e-commerce start-ups offering specialised home improvement products and services, as this market remains largely untapped in the region.

Moreover, government initiatives to boost the real estate and housing sector, more explicitly in Dubai, are likely to give further impetus to the sector. As consumer priorities are likely to remain centred on ‘need of the hour’ essentials, opportunities also lie in specialized retail categories such as personal health, hygiene, cleaning, and Covid-19 supplies stores.

At the same time, the region must continue to leverage advanced technologies such as AI, big data analytics and cloud computing to spur offerings across industries as digitalization becomes the central pillar for survival and growth. Notably, the GCC is already home to a range of cloud-based service operators, catering to offerings from delivery and restaurant management software apps to collaborative remote work management systems.

Local startups thriving in this market include Saudi Arabian restaurant management platform Foodics, which recently expanded to Egypt; Dubai’s Kitopi, a cloud-based network provider for delivery-only food businesses; ZenHR, a Jordanian cloud-based HR management system localized to the MENA; and Saudi Arabian Software as a Service (SaaS) company, a B2B marketplace that helps firms manage their procurement and spending activities, which recently raised $1.35 million in seed funding from Wamda, Plug and Play and other strategic investors. Such players can not only help mitigate the concerns surrounding supply chain disruptions amid rising demand from digital consumers but also increase the virtual workforce strength.

During such trying times, GCC entrepreneurs, businesses, and SMEs must focus on sustainability as a key pillar for long-term growth as they navigate through this crisis, and shift focus in line with evolving consumer needs. Moreover, companies would need to alter their operating model considering the rise in price sensitive consumers while also address the pressing issues through strategic digital transformation. With public sector finances experiencing significant challenges, it is also important for the regional governments to continue spurring the private sector with new initiatives and incentivizing them to foster innovation. Start-ups in the region will need to capitalize on the changing consumer sentiment and behavior to remain ahead of the curve, while integrating and scaling digital solutions to attain efficiencies will further help them adapt and thrive in the new normal.

Shailesh Dash is a serial entrepreneur, ideator and mentor. Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy.

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