Breaking the mould

Intense competition in the GCC’s established markets has prompted consumer electronics companies to invest in the region’s ‘emerging’ economies to bolster returns generated by their Middle East operations. Ronan Shields reports.

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By  Ronan Shields Published  January 29, 2007

|~|arab-electrical.200.jpg|~|The GCC's emerging markets are proving a boon for consumer electronics vendors looking to grow their business in the region.|~|The continuing boom in demand for consumer electronics goods in the Middle East has largely been seen in the flourishing economies of the GCC region, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both countries offer channel players enhanced infrastructure and easy access to consumer markets, which are characterised by considerable spending power. However, profit margins have significantly diminished in recent years, which has forced some companies to reevaluate their commercial strategies. Forward-thinking companies are increasingly turning to ‘emerging’ markets in the GCC to provide healthier returns on their investments as the consumer electronics markets of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Yemen offer potentially larger profits. Governments across the region have embraced globalisation and are increasingly abandoning their protectionist policies, which is providing consumer electronics vendors with new commercial opportunities. Distribution companies in Bahrain have hailed the government’s market liberalisation policies for transforming the dynamics of the country’s consumer electronics sector. “We have enjoyed 20% to 30% annual growth in our business in recent years,” reports Hassan Al Mahroos, managing director of Manama-based home appliances distributor Al Mahroos. Al Mahroos says the company, which boasts German-based cleaning appliances vendor Kärcher among its clients, has revisited its sales strategy in recent times in a bid to tap demand for high-end goods coming from Bahrain’s increasing pool of middle class expat residents. “Bahrain’s expatriate population is largely drawn from Europe and the Far East, contrasting starkly with other countries in the region where expats are largely nationals from countries like India and Pakistan,” says Al Mahroos. “The dearth of cheap labour has limited the ability of channel players to provide low-cost, value-added services in areas such as home installation. “This has promoted a ‘DIY’ mentality among Bahrain’s consumers. As a result, we have seen a surge in demand for domestic devices such as power drills, kitchen appliances and cleaning equipment,” he adds. “In a manner of speaking this phenomenon has led to the creation of a new ‘product market’ as opposed to a new ‘market trend’.” Sandeep Saighal, retail sales and marketing manager for Samsung Gulf, Mobile Division, says the company relies heavily on market data when developing its sales strategy in the GCC. “We work hard to develop new ways of spreading our message to consumers in emerging markets,” he says. “It’s important to develop a strong presence initially as research has shown there is significant brand-loyalty among consumers in these markets.” The race to win favour with the region’s purportedly ‘impressionable’ consumers has prompted some channel players to slash profit margins in an attempt tap into growing consumer demand. ||**||Challenges facing vendors |~|Manish-Bakshi.200.jpg|~|Manish Bakshi, general manager of BenQ Middle East.|~|US-based mobile handset vendor Motorola recently introduced a raft of cut-price handsets designed for the region’s emerging markets, specifically identifying Yemen as a key market. In an earlier interview with ECN, Motorola Middle East, North Africa and Turkey area sales manager Harout Bedrossian explained the company was leveraging its low-cost handset strategy in a bid to gain market share in emerging markets and in the long-term, garner brand loyalty among consumers. He did concede that the limited infrastructure that afflicted some of these markets posed significant challenges to commercial expansion. “Yemen, for example, has a population of around 22 million, of which 60% reside in remote regions of the country. As a result, we have had to reevaluate our strategy for this market, given the lack of infrastructure and diffused population,” he explains. Vendors also point to other salient factors influencing their enthusiasm for developing a strong market presence in the region’s emerging economies. Manish Bakshi, general manager of BenQ Middle East, describes Kuwait as one of the company’s most profitable markets in the region. He attributes this to the company’s strong partnership with local distributor Xpresscell. “Our success over the last 18 months is the result of our strategy of teaming up with established channel partners,” adds Bakshi. “Small scale retail outlets account for only 20% of our turnover in Kuwait while more organised stores provide 40% of market share in terms of revenues.” However, he notes that such impressive returns, in terms of market share, come at a cost. “The comparative lack of infrastructure in emerging markets leads to higher operational costs resulting in diminished returns,” he explains. “Kuwait-based distributors typically work towards 15% profit margins compared to six-to-seven percent margins in the UAE.” Figures published by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) assert that the median age of Kuwaiti consumers is 23, with 52% of the Kuwaiti population aged 20 to 44. “With such a young population, Kuwait offers major commercial potential in the long-term for our handheld devices business,” says Makarand Phadke, sales and marketing manager for Samsung Digital Media Business, AV division. The relative lack of brand loyalty in these markets has created a more even playing field among consumer electronics vendors. Many industry pundits claim this offers a window of opportunity for entry-level vendors to steal a march on higher profile brands. South Korea’s Hyundai Corporation has recognised this trend and recently launched its consumer electronics range in the Qatar. Partnering exclusively with Doha-based Universal Business Systems (UBS), Hyundai is aiming for 20% market share by 2010. “Hyundai is keen to develop its multimedia and home appliances businesses. There is a large consumer market segment for Hyundai-branded products in this region,” says UBS managing director NMR Siraj. Hyundai claims Qatar’s massive expatriate population, amounting to 75% of the nation’s inhabitants, and emerging market dynamics could see it emulate the success of the UAE. “Price-sensitive markets such as Qatar offer an alternative route to success in the Middle East,” claims Ahmad Thanveer, senior marketing manager, Hyundai Corporation Middle East. Thanveer also notes that Chinese brands have been quick to capitalise on this factor in the GCC. “The majority of GCC consumers are cost-sensitive, causing many traders to opt for cheaper Chinese products or established brands with manufacturing facilities in China.” Thanveer suggests that by leveraging the reputation of South Korean brands in this region and investing in value-added services, Hyundai will win favour with the region’s burgeoning ‘middle classes’, avoiding a futile price war with its Chinese counterparts. “South Korean brands are well-respected in the Middle East. By offering our channel partners decent margins and premium after-sales service support we are aiming to project a strong brand image,” he says. “We believe that making our products available in hypermarkets will also enable us to achieve the volumes necessary to meet our targets.” ||**||Retail dynamics|~|Srivastava-200.jpg|~|Deepak Srivastava, concept head of ambitious power retailer, Emax.|~|The GCC region’s developing retail sector has encouraged consumer electronics power retailer Emax to pursue a strategy of establishing ‘big-box’ outlets across the region. Emax currently operates mall-based retail outlets in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. The company is relying on its ‘big box’ retail concept stores to drive its regional expansion strategy. “We have observed how competition in the consumer electronics retail sector has inflated mall rental prices to a point where both retailers and consumers are ultimately losing out,” says Deepak Srivastava, concept head of Emax. “We are aware of the disparities that impact various consumer markets across the GCC region, but we are also confident that our ‘big box’ retail concept will head-off competition from rivals in these countries.” The company is targeting 20% share of the total GCC retail market within the next two years and is confident its new retail concept will steal customers away from hypermarkets and mall-based power retail outlets. “By introducing the concept in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, we hope to compensate for the lack of mall space in these countries, as well as bypassing the challenges power retailers have experienced in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” says Srivastava. “The concept will enable us to offer improved service standards to our customers and access to a huge array of products under one roof at affordable prices.” An analysis of market trends suggest that channel distribution companies stand to gain significantly from the rush to emerging markets, as a general lack of infrastructure means vendors will be heavily reliant on their ability to service each market effectively on their behalf. The effects of globalisation may moderate this trend but this will rely heavily on foreign investment and the increasing influx of Western expat workers. While countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar seem close to emulating this trend, Yemen still lags significantly behind. As the GCC region’s developed markets approach maturity, its emerging markets present huge commercial opportunities for vendors willing to accept the inherent logistical challenges of operating in these territories. The industry’s ability to deal with the diverse challenges presented by these countries will play a key role in determining its ability to exploit each market. ||**||

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