Removing barriers to online shopping in the UAE

As eCommerce grows and captures a larger share of the total retail market in the UAE, it is important to consider the main barriers to completing a purchase online with the view to providing better consumer experiences in the journey from product discovery to consumption.

Prior to launching an eCommerce platform in the UAE to facilitate event registrations, inphota, completed a study of 5,200 UAE residents to help identify limiting factors and barriers to completing online purchases where consumers have to make a conscious purchasing decision.

This report, summarizing the themes that emerged from within the research combined with experience of launching an e-commerce platform, has been undertaken with the objective of supporting the wider eCommerce ecosystem in developing an action plan to minimize the barriers to entry and fuel growth of the eCommerce sector in the UAE.

87% of adults in the UAE have shopped online, however, the majority of those surveyed (54%), stated that as a proportion of their purchases, less than half were made online. To increase the frequency of online purchases it is important to start by identifying the types of products that respondents are purchasing as customers differ in the way they buy various products.

Convenience — low-priced consumer products with a widespread distribution that customers buy frequently with minimum buying effort and without long comparison.

Shopping — mid-priced consumer products. Before buying customers consider different brands according to the following parameters: price, quality, suitability and style.

78% of those surveyed had purchased mid-priced consumer products online, whereas only 8% had purchased convenience items online.

Looking at the types of products that respondents purchased online shows a significant difference in purchasing across categories and leads us into the first hurdle that eCommerce retailers must overcome.

Barrier #1: Manually selecting products

32% of UAE residents don’t shop online because they like to see and choose products in person before buying them.

This disproportionately impacts the convenience sector and suggests that in the case of mid-priced consumer products, customers are researching products in traditional retail before searching for their preferred products at a preferential rate online.

One operational decision that can be made to help overcome the reluctance to purchase items without validating them first is a comprehensive returns policy. Clearly specifying your returns policy can reassure customers and contribute to their purchasing decision.

Key insight

73% claimed that they would not shop at a site that did not have a returns policy.

Barrier #2: Price Sensitivity

36% of those surveyed have purchased goods from international eCommerce retailers whilst residing in the UAE, citing price as a key decision-making factor.

It’s important for UAE retailers to consider pricing parity, not simply with competitors in the local market but the globally available price for their products to avoid losing customers to cross-border transactions.

Barrier #3: Delivery

Looking at the contributing factors in relation to delivery the survey highlighted the importance of audience segmentation. Not all consumers behave in the same way and that it is important to factor in consumer choice when providing delivery options.

It’s not possible to accommodate customers who are put off by high delivery costs (25%) and those who don’t want to wait for products to arrive (13%) with a single option so consider giving customers a choice of delivery options.

Linking back to price sensitivity, those who don’t shop online as they are unwilling to wait for products to arrive are less likely to price sensitive.To counteract this eCommerce sites could offer tiered delivery options with premium options guaranteeing immediate delivery for the time sensitive and a free tier for the consumer who is willing to wait for products to arrive.

Key insight

54% claimed that they would be willing to pay a premium for a same day delivery.

Barrier #4: Trust

Lack of trust in online shopping sites was cited as a key reason for not shopping online by 19% of respondents.

A key trust factor is the ability to assess a product’s quality and authenticity which can be overcome by encouraging reviews from existing customers.

67% of respondents would feel more comfortable purchasing from a website when they see positive product specific reviews from existing customers.

Trust is not simply limited to your own brand but extends to the whole end-to-end shopping experience as 14% would not shop online due to concerns about the security of online payment gateways in the UAE.

Barrier #5: Data Privacy

Often overlooked, Data Privacy is an area that UAE based eCommerce retailers should address if they wish to build consumer trust. It’s surprising how many sites don’t have an easily accessible Privacy Policy or explicit cookie consent which are commonplace on international retail sites.

A GDPR equivalent is yet to be released in the UAE, yet consumers are more aware of how their personal details are being stored and processed — 57% believe that it is important for retailers to offer the option to checkout as a guest without storing personal details

62% of those surveyed would support the introduction of a regional GDPR equivalent to offer them additional rights when it comes to data protection. Even though there is not a requirement written into law, the customer insight suggests that there is an opportunity for retailers to get ahead of the curve and pro-actively implement policies that are more consumer friendly.

Consumers are becoming frustrated with the amount of direct marketing communication they receive with 64% claiming that they have received unsolicited marketing communications in the past two weeks. The purchasing of databases is still common practice in the region yet 84% of respondents claimed that they are less likely to purchase from a brand that they received unsolicited communication from.

The lack of sophistication when it comes to marketing is putting many consumers off and having untold negative effects on brand reputation and trust. The current approach for many focuses on collecting as much Personally Identifiable Information (PII) as possible and sending the same piece of communication to everyone on the database.

Instead of this blanket one message fits all approach, marketeers could reduce the feeling of spamming by making communication relevant and begin to respect the customers desire for privacy. Instead of purchasing databases of contacts, work with the data you have, work to understand your customers and communicate with those who have explicitly agreed to receive communication from your brand. This approach will yield far better results when it comes to sales and help to build customer Lifetime Value (LTV).

Barrier #6: Customer service

The UAE is known for excellent customer service at physical outlets it appears that this has not fully translated to eCommerce with 16% of customers claiming that poor customer service was a barrier to shopping online.

With 59% stating that immediate access to customer service representatives would be an important positive factor in completing a purchase with an eCommerce retailer. For many businesses offering a customer service call centre would be cost prohibitive but this is an important point to address. It would be worth retailers considering how technical solutions can accommodate customer needs and improve on-site experience.

Many solutions already exist to assist this problem, the most popular approach being to integrate an online live chat platform. Such an approach can provide the consumer with instant access to a consumer support agent who can provide answers and reassurance to a wary new customer. Introduction of such a platform can greatly increase user engagement, trust in the brand, and improve conversion rates by up to 30%.


There is a clear and present opportunity for eCommerce platforms in the UAE, however, key technical and customer service issues need to be addressed to overcome customer concerns and remove the barriers to shopping online that currently exist.

In recent years growth of eCommerce has been driven by government services, however, the outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of eCommerce transactions for other categories including groceries. Adapting to the rapid change is likely to present many challenges, however, the opportunity for companies who can successfully build customer loyalty during the current climate is significant.




Founder, Consultant, Analytical Marketer. Specializing in Digital Strategy | Performance Marketing | Customer Insight I Marketing Technology | Growth 🚀

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Andrew Laity

Andrew Laity

Founder, Consultant, Analytical Marketer. Specializing in Digital Strategy | Performance Marketing | Customer Insight I Marketing Technology | Growth 🚀

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