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Exclusive: For MENA e-commerce to thrive further, digital payments need to “be instant and frictionless”

AMEinfo spoke with Mohammed Ali Yusuf, Regional Manager of MENAP Region at Checkout.com, to learn more about the company's operations and the MENA region's digital payments landscape.

"What our latest research shows is that this region represents a huge opportunity for digital commerce" "While there has been a sudden surge in e-commerce and digital payments this year due to the impact of COVID-19, what we are seeing today is more than a temporary change in consumer behavior" "Robust digital payment options have... become an integral part of what consumers expect from merchants"

The advent of COVID-19 has shed light on the importance of digital payments in the Middle East like never before. In a region enamored with the familiarity of cash, the pandemic has stimulated a major boost in e-commerce, which in turn is pushing for the demand of digital payments. 

One company thriving in this field is global payment solution provider Checkout.com, which recently released a report that shows that digital payment transactions have nearly doubled in the region since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company counts Careem, Samsung and Deliveroo among its customers, and has had extensive experience in the sector over the years.

Hoping to learn more about the company’s operations and the MENA region’s digital payments landscape, AMEinfo spoke with Mohammed Ali Yusuf, Regional Manager of MENAP Region at Checkout.com.  

1. What has your journey been like in the region since you first launched in 2012? 

Our mission from day one has been to empower the most forward-thinking businesses to do what they do, better, by unlocking more value in every transaction. We had spent years building the technology to do this in a way that truly flexes to the unique demands of every merchant business we serve. 

In the region, it has been and continues to be our privilege to do just that. We were really a first-mover in the local market, launching our business in 2014 to challenge the old transaction journey. That was quite complex, and it wasn’t built for agile business growth. We’ve changed that by offering a unique end-to-end platform that helps businesses move faster with flexible tools, granular data, and deeper insights. That includes facilitating the fastest and most reliable payments in more than 150 currencies, with multiple payment methods, world-class fraud filters, and reporting, all through one API.

The value of that unique offering can be seen in our current Middle East partner and customer network. In a relatively short period, we’ve worked with leaders across the financial industry—including Visa and Mastercard—as well as serving much-loved brands like Careem, Deliveroo, and Zomato, to name but a few. We have scaled to a team of 900 people across 14 offices worldwide, with our sights on establishing more offices in the Middle East specifically in the near to mid-term.

2. What are some noteworthy trends in the MENA e-commerce sphere that you noticed have emerged in the years since then?

Ways of doing business and ways of life are pivoting around today’s revolution in digital payments.

What our latest research shows is that this region represents a huge opportunity for digital commerce. In our newest report—Connected Payments in MENAP–we found that 47% of respondents anticipate that they’ll be doing even more online shopping in the coming year. That is already building on a strong base. At Checkout.com, we’ve seen an increase in our own payment volumes of nearly 86% YoY in MENAP for 2020. We’ve also seen that the region’s consumers have embraced e-commerce nearly universally, with 90% saying they shop online, including nearly half doing so at least on a monthly basis. 

Robust digital payment options have thus become an integral part of what consumers expect from merchants. The more frequently consumers shop online, for instance, the more likely they are to pay by card or digital wallets rather than cash on delivery, making it clear that consumers are moving towards digital payments. Scaling digital payment platforms is thus a clear opportunity for merchants of all sizes to stay in step with consumer preferences and build loyalty with their customers.

Read: Digital payments surge, as 49% of UAE consumers shop online more during COVID-19

Checkout.com HQ

3. Can you share with us some information on your most ambitious projects in the Middle East? 

One particular project I think is worth highlighting is our cooperation with the online donation platform YallaGive. We partnered with them earlier this year to process payments around the ‘10 Million Meals’ initiative. The campaign was launched under the umbrella of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives in collaboration with the Social Solidarity Fund Against COVID-19, and was one of the largest community campaigns ever seen in the UAE. Not only were we able to secure millions of dirhams of online donations, but we also waived our typical processing fees for the campaign as a way to help even more people through the initiative.

4. The region has always suffered from a lack of faith in online payment services, notable in the popularity of the Cash on Delivery payment option. Why do you think the region has had such a wavering faith in online payment solutions? 

On the contrary, we have seen that people do increasingly trust digital payments in the region. For example, in our latest market study, we found that 81% of respondents from the region say they trust the safety and security of online payments. Our experience has shown that the use of cash stems from a mistrust in fulfillment of the order over security concerns. However, with the rise in e-commerce transactions throughout COVID-19, we are seeing that consumers aren’t going back to cash after trying e-commerce. 

That said, trust remains a very important factor in many people’s purchasing decisions. Nearly half of online shoppers across the region say that a safe, secure, and convenient payment process is the most important factor for their online experience aside from price, according to our latest studies. 

We do recognize that cash-on-delivery is still preferred by some consumers. But this represents a considerable untapped opportunity for merchants to demonstrate the added-value of digital payments. Again, we see the issue as being less about consumer trust in online payments, but the quality of online payment services that merchants are offering.

5. Today, we see that consumer attitudes are finally changing. How can companies like Checkout.com help tide consumers over? 

Through our advanced technical capabilities, we empower local merchants to create better products and experiences for their customers. We do this first and foremost by helping merchants to bring all of their payments together through one seriously powerful platform. Through a purpose-built payment platform, merchants can build their digital payment model once, and then get all features and new payment methods delivered directly through a unified and clean API. 

Read: Careem, Visa, sign partnership to accelerate cashless payments and digital financial inclusion across MENA

6. According to your data, how has COVID-19 shifted purchasing behavior online, at a time where even fence-sitting customers are finally taking the leap? 

Recent changes in day-to-day payment activity have accelerated trends we’ve long witnessed globally. We have found that COVID-19 is driving a significant share of the current e-commerce and digital payment transactions in the region, as 40% of online shoppers say they are buying and paying online because of the pandemic. Moreover, 45% say they are now purchasing products and services online more frequently than they did before the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

While there has been a sudden surge in e-commerce and digital payments this year due to the impact of COVID-19, what we are seeing today is more than a temporary change in consumer behavior.

7. What are some notable findings from your usage figures that emerge during the annual Black Friday shopping celebration? And, do you expect purchasing trends will be different this year considering the pandemic? 

Black Friday campaigns have been steadily increasing in recent years. This year, we expect e-commerce to be bigger than ever, and are expecting to break all of our internal records. The trend we are seeing this year is that the sales are starting earlier and lasting longer than ever before, as businesses seek to generate revenue towards the end of the quarter. 

8. In your opinion, what are the most notable e-commerce payment trends that we could see in the next 5-10 years?

Overall, we’re seeing a rapid maturing of domestic merchants who are serving the long tail of e-commerce, and challenging the likes of Amazon and Alibaba in some instances. There’s also lots of innovation generally across the region, supported by local regulators and fueled by a great talent pool. 

There’s a growing acceptance of mobile commerce in particular. In the past, consumers would research on the phone and then open a laptop or visit a store to make a purchase. Now they’re just ordering straight from their phones.  This all feeds into the shift to online retail experiences. Traditional retailers are moving to online at a greater pace than we’ve ever seen.  Merchants in the region ultimately want to serve their customers in a consistent way whether they’re engaging with them online or in-store. 

Considering these factors and the ones highlighted earlier, consumers are demanding that payments be instant and frictionless. Innovation in digital payment technologies thus empowers local merchants to unlock more value in every transaction.