LuLu delivery
All sealed and to be delivered... Fitting in delivery schedules is now a key issue retailers are grappling with to ensure smooth transactions. Picture here are cartons at a LuLu logistics centre. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: With demand surging after the COVID-19 outbreak, the UAE’s online retail space is being stretched to the limit – especially on the delivery side.

“Supplies of grocery and all essential commodities are still coming into the country without a hitch… but the problem is with getting them to consumers on time,” said V. Nandakumar, Chief Communications Officer at LuLu Group. “So far, we have relied on own personnel to take care of our web store order deliveries – but that had to change.

“We will have to appoint third-party delivery companies to take care of the last-mile logistics. It’s already been done in Saudi Arabia to cope with the online order surge. Orders have to be delivered within a set timeframe, and more so with fresh produce. Any delay will spoil the whole online experience for shoppers. No retailer can afford that.”

The pressure on delivery services has become more intense these days, and not just because of the spike in orders. The limits on travel between 8pm to 6am daily ensures orders can only be delivered in the rest of the available time. Average time take for delivery is now between four to seven days.

This is where the retailers and fleet operators are getting creative – in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, taxi fleets have been co-opted to take care of door-to-door delivery. It’s still a work in progress, but something needs to be done to try and match demand vs. delivery.

Learning on the move

According to a spokesperson at Eat App, “Delivery services are providing a crucial service right now as people are permanently at home. They’ve adapted quickly to the situation to meet demand and introduced safety measures like contactless delivery to address growing concerns with bringing food from outside sources into their homes.

“This is no doubt an extra cost that these delivery businesses need to incur in terms of training, messaging and brand awareness - but one that is definitely for the greater good.”

Crunch time for restaurants

Until the 8pm-6am movement restrictions came into effect, online F&B ordering and delivery was one of the biggest gainers from having people confined to their homes. But now, with the dinner and late orders winding down, the F&B online portals are heavily reliant on the serving the other meal options. But that may not be enough to compensate for the dinner deliveries.

“It’s still too early to assess the full impact as many restaurants were still delivering food after 8pm until recently,” said the Eat App spokesperson. “Of course a drop off is expected - but we are also looking for a shift in consumer behaviour as they react to the developing situation.

“The situation is developing daily as new rules are coming in.”

Eat App
Booking a table at a restaurant has gone down as a priority for UAE residents. The F&B industry will need options to get through the coming weeks.

But there are opportunities too

With online on the march as never before, other categories in the UAE are fast-tracking their acceptance of it. The pharmacy business is one such.

Online take up rates in the retail buying of medicines has become such a feature in recent weeks, as the authorities and healthcare operators emphasize reduction of visits to hospitals and clinics unless it is an emergency.

BinSina Pharmacy became an early mover into this space. It set up WhatsApp ordering and a pharmacist-staffed call centre. “Adding the partnership with InstaShop to deliver from our physical stores in Dubai and Abu Dhabi was our second step - but [we] learned that limiting the range to what we had in-store wasn’t what customers wanted,” said a BinSina spokesperson.

“They wanted access to our flagship stores’ range from the comfort of their own home. That was the trigger to start work on our ecommerce website offering more than 9,000 health and beauty products. We will be launching our loyalty programme soon to reward and personalize our offers.”

It had launched online services in December, but “decided to pull the website and seek accreditation by the Ministry of Health as an online pharmacy,” the spokesperson added. “This was the right thing to do and has led us to be the first MoH-accredited online pharmacy.

“We relaunched at the beginning of March.”

Pharmaceutical workers wear face masks to serve customers in a pharmacy in Barcelona, Spain, on Sunday, March 15, 2020.
Pharmacies are seeing a shift in how their customers place orders. Online portals are now the source for medicines, and pharmacies in the UAE are ramping up online presence. File picture of pharmacists at a store in Spain. Image Credit: Bloomberg

The timing could not have been better as it was just about then that UAE consumers started hitting the online options in never before seen numbers.

“As an accredited online pharmacy, we are now working on telemedicine and approved delivery of medication,” the spokesperson said. “The regulation for the latter has only just been issue. This is new for everyone involved in the UAE.

“Our insurance partners trust us to have the right experience… so are open to work with us to make sure the patient is cared for in the right way.”

Remittances head into digital territory

Social distancing is the need of the hour – and the UAE’s remittance businesses are learning to cope with it fast. Traditionally a business prone to seeing customers queue up at branches to send out their monthly payments, or when their currencies see a sudden, sharp fall.

But these days, more of these remittances are happening through apps, and something the local central bank is fully in support of.

“With COVID-19, digital has become the new normal,” said Adeeb Ahmed, Managing Director at LuLu Financial Holdings. “The recent restrictions on outdoor movement has led to increased activity on the ‘LuLu Money’ platform, especially in UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain.”

The app, which has over 350,000 downloads, saw 15,000 new ones in the last 10 days. Customers who wish to use the app need to provide KYC details at the LuLu International Exchange branches as a first step.

File picture from a time when remittances could only be done through a visit to the currency exchange branch. Now, digital ways are spreading their wing in this space.

Learning fast

But the quickest uptake of all things digital has been in education, with distance learning helping it along.

“Schools as well as colleges moved into delivering online content and online classrooms with rapid speed Amol Ghate, CEO - Middle East at the Insights Division of Kantar, the marketing consultancy.

“That meant a huge amount of backend work for retooling the businesses, training teachers and getting students to adapt to the new ways of working. It is a brilliant move in all respects because it helps the sector protect their revenues while also providing a creative solution to parents who are - naturally - worried about their children’s learning.”

But the learning is not confined to the UAE’s children. When it comes to online, everyone’s on it in some way or the other.

Kantar UAE
What's trending as UAE residents spend more time indoors. Groceries shopping is an obvious choice, according to the Kantar survey. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive