x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Good days to be an online shopper

Computers and the internet are changing many aspects of the experience of retail shopping – and the pace of change is picking up.

The daily-deal website LivingSocial is reported to be thinking of leaving the Middle East. Shares in another bargains-via-internet company, Groupon, lost a fifth of their value earlier this week because the company's revenue figures disappointed investors.

This is rough news for shareholders and private investors in the two companies, and raises some questions about their marketing concepts. For consumers, however, this is part of a revolution in retailing that promises new and easier ways to buy, and better deals.

To be sure, online group buying and couponing as we know them are far from dead; intense competition, with at least 20 companies in the sector, has been a challenge for some in this region. But Groupon chalked up a profit for the second quarter of 2012, and as The National reports today, says it is profitable in the Middle East, as well as globally.

Still, some questions do remain about the business model: not all customers are pleased with what they have bought, and some merchants bemoan the lack of repeat business. The jury is still out on group buying.

This is all in the game for business, where efficient firms based on good ideas prosper, and the others do not. What's new now is that the internet and computer technology have drastically accelerated this Darwinian competition. New ideas for retailing go beyond online, too. Many firms say customers are researching online, then buying in-store.

And ideas just keep coming. Some - remember pet food online? - are just silly. But some - such as Amazon - find novel ways to match supply efficiently with demand. Those firms are here to stay.

But all of them, or almost all, are mutating. Amazon is now trying hard to sell you books on Kindle, not paper. LivingSocial tested its own online store in the UAE last year, and will soon roll out the concept in the US. Online retailers are scrambling to reach the ever-growing numbers of smartphone users, and to find ways to cash in on booming social media. A US company even offers mall owners a booth that uses radio waves to make 300,000 measurement of a (fully dressed) customer. Shoppers can then head out to the outlet where garments will fit just right.

Ingenuity, motivated by the lure of profit, is making the local and global marketplace work better and better for customers. This is a good era in which to be a shopper.