Nicolas Bruylants
Nicolas Bruylants did quite well with his TV shopping channel. Now, he wants to help brands gain maximum visibility in the online arena. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A new generation of digital startups and entrepreneurs are trying to break into the UAE’s ecommerce marketplace – and stop it from being a two-horse race.

It won’t be easy - despite recording bumper growth in 2020 as more shoppers picked up their needs and luxuries online, it’s not a category where profits come easily. For every gains made by noon or Amazon, there have been casualties such as Then, there is the competition that the ecommerce ventures of UAE’s traditional retail heavyweights – Majid Al Futtaim, Apparel Group, LuLu and Landmark – come up with.

But even then, recent weeks show that some are willing to give it a try. “Becoming a profitable online marketplace is tough,” said Nicolas Bruylants, co-founder of CNNB.

“You have the likes of Amazon and noon as direct competitors, two companies that have very deep pockets that are fighting between themselves for marketshare by giving their customers the best price and experience, leaving little chance for other players.

“But I believe there are still opportunities in the region for new kinds of marketplaces that address a specific vertical. For example, a marketplace that would focus on everything related to health, sleep and wellness, a trend that showed significant growth during the pandemic. Or a marketplace that offers verified-only sustainable, healthy and organic products.”

Nicolas Bruylants of CNNB helps manage brands' online presence and gain visibility in digital marketplaces. Irish Eden. R. Belleza/Gulf News

Bruylants’ venture CNNB is chasing opportunities in a niche area, where it’s ecommerce solutions will allow brands “to own their customer relationship”. He knows a thing or two about brands and selling, being the founder of citrussTV, the Dubai-based shopping channel that was later sold to a Chinese company.

“The CNNB business is currently still self-funded, by myself,” he said. “The business name is after my business partner initials CN (Charbel Nasr) and mine. We have a strong background together from our time at citrussTV.

“CNNB allows brands to concentrate on what they do best – promote their products – safe in the knowledge that we will maximize their online sales. Our team helps brands build online stores, manage and scale direct to consumer operations.

“There are many brands that want to own their customer experience, but they aren’t doing it yet through lack of expertise, or time-to-market is too long for them, or investment is too large. We reduce the time-to-market and reduce the costs.”

One for the small business

Another ecommerce venture is going live in the UAE, this time more as a marketplace. But rather than be a platform for everything – as noon or Amazon do – targets small businesses and even individuals wanting to sell their products online.

“Our platform is currently only available in the UAE, but it is open to more than just licensed business,” said Alex Briggs of SellShip. “Anyone above can sell with our free plan as we are looking to support start-ups/entrepreneurship and home businesses. As for businesses with trade licenses, we offer a different package with multiple features to support their selling process.

“SellShip’s USP is its accessibility and casual environment. Any person from a small business to a single person looking for a new way to make money can easily make an account and sell items in a few minutes without the hassle of complicated terms or shipping.”

Stock Sellship
The SellShip formula, according to Alex Briggs, is offer the easiest possible ways for small businesses or individuals to list their products online. And not worry about commissions. Image Credit: Supplied

Still room for more

The big names in local ecommerce too offer SMEs their platforms to sell from. But these come on rigid commission terms and rules of engagement. SellShip’s promoters clearly believe there is a chance to target a wider base of small businesses for whom costs matter as much as exposure.

“A user must first create an account and an online store on SellShip,” said Briggs. “After creating the store, our team will verify the store details. Once approved the seller can go ahead and list an item/items.

“When a buyer purchases the item, the seller will be notified to confirm the pick-up of the item. SellShip’s courier team will pick up the item and deliver it to the buyer. Upon delivery, the seller will be rated and paid.”

B2B action

Another UAE based venture, Tradeling, recently launched Tradeling Shops focussed exclusively on the micro- and small business community. It allows small businesses owners to source their wholesale supplies and targets grocers, minimarts, supermarkets, tea shops, cafeterias and small restaurants. The plan is to expand further and cater to laundromats, beauty salons, barbers and other small business shops.

Tradeling Shops will give these businesses easy payment options ranging from cash to credit card. The service is now available in Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain and extend to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain later in the year.

Marius Ciavola, CEO of Tradeling, said: “We cater to all segments of the B2B market to enable businesses to grow and operate with ease. Tradeling Shops is aimed at supporting small enterprise owners to expand their product range quickly, effectively and competitively so they can grow their businesses.”

Tradeling Shops
Tradeling Shops' is also aiming for the small business out there. This is one category that could see more action as more players come up with specific solutions that meet the needs of SMEs chasing an online exposure. Image Credit: Supplied

Chance of success

Nitin Agarwal, President of Hundred, reckons price comparison apps can last the distance. Irish Eden R. Belleza/Gulf News

If 2020 was the breakthrough year for the UAE’s ecommerce space, this year will be about furthering its possibilities. Deep pockets will count for a lot, as some of the online grocery portals are finding to their cost. But there are niche needs, which is what Bruylants means when he talks about looking beyond marketplaces.

Nitin Agarwal, President of Hundred, seems to be doing just that. He has a newly launched app – View Hundred – that provides a listing of all the discount offers out there related to the individual’s credit or debit cards.

This applies to all categories like food and drinks, retail, fashion, fitness, hotel and travel. So, if someone wants to know the three Ramadan deals linked to a particular card or set of cards, then tap on the Hundred. Ditto for staycation offers if that’s what the user wants to browse through.

There are other compare apps and platforms available, but the ones that can come up with the partner tie-ins will stand the best chance of surviving out there.

Whatever the future has in store, the present is clear enough – the UAE’s ecommerce space is no closed shop.