At the end of 2020, WhatsApp started a system called Carts that allows multiple products to be sold over social messaging platforms. But even before this, WhatsApp had been a selling tool for many months, especially in the MENA region. With some of the first lockdowns overlapping with the start of the Ramadan shopping period – a highly profitable season for anyone in high fashion and jewelry in the Arab world – retailers had to adapt quickly, as malls shut down. Fashion brands banking on this period for a significant portion of sales turned to WhatsApp as the way to communicate and to sell. Even with WhatsApp recently announcing that it would be updating its privacy policy, prompting some companies (particularly those in banking and finance) to move to Signal, a service that offers end-to-end encryption, Middle East retailers will still be looking to this app as a way of connecting with customers, so ubiquitous is its use in the region presently.

While the Middle East is known for its mall culture, it is a most social media savvy region as well. A recent white paper on the state of social media in MENA by Damian Radcliffe and Amanda Lam at the University of Oregon found that WhatsApp is the most popular social channel in the region.

Says New York’s Maria Tash, a world-renowned luxury jewelry designer and ear piercer who has a store in The Dubai Mall, and another one opening soon in Kuwait: “I noticed during our Kuwait and Dubai pop-ups several years ago that WhatsApp was an effective way to communicate with local clients, much more than anything I had experienced in New York or London. So after I opened my store inside The Dubai Mall, I always wanted to implement some selling via WhatsApp. The pandemic accelerated the creation of our WhatsApp selling program.”

Maria Tash Fashion Trust Arabia 1
Maria Tash Fashion Trust Arabia 1

Maria Tash jewelry is available for purchase on WhatsApp in the GCC

The method is fairly simple, as all Maria Tash retail staff are also trained stylists: they contact key clients via WhatsApp with a special look book and ideas. Throughout the lockdown, clients were able to purchase products via the app, ensuring sales for this jewelry brand were still healthy during the Ramadan period despite the pandemic.

Samara Punjabi CEO of Times Square, a company that retails and distributes several brands in the Middle East including Manolo Blahnik, has found that there is more of a personal connection through WhatsApp than traditional e-tail methods. “Taking feedback and responding to complaints also becomes easier and creates an even longer-lasting relationship between us and customers, which is very important to us.”

Dubai shoe lovers can now buy their Manolo Blahnik heels via WhatsApp

Though most malls in the region are back to normal working hours, WhatsApp remains an important tool for retailers in the Middle East, especially for those with large flagships in the UAE. “Emiratis have developed a culture where it is always acceptable to be on your phone. This exponential acceptance of social network popularity in the Middle East is also because we have several fashion brands investing in their digital network and technology,” says Punjabi. She adds that 80% of the UAE population use WhatsApp as a regular communication tool. This also mean that local distributors need to invest in having their own team of digital designers. Global luxury conglomerate LVMH recently created a high level position for a Chief Omnichannel Officer, which indicates that the use of social methods platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram is set to become an industry norm. With fashion having had possibly its worst year ever, brands will be focusing on how to make up for losses, and perhaps WhatsApp selling could just be the elixir the industry needs. As Punjabi says, “From our experience we can see a big revenue return, and it helps our business to stay afloat during these unstable times.”