Most shoppers love a bargain – but given the sheer size of the UAE’s megamalls, finding one can prove more of a marathon than a sprint.
That was not a problem for the Dubai resident Omar Khalaf, who paid a visit to a shopping comparison website – the virtual equivalent of trudging around the shops.
A handful of sites that allow users to compare product prices have sprung up in the UAE and wider Middle East in the past couple of years, highlighting big savings on goods ranging from gadgets to groceries.
Most compare prices across the UAE’s online stores, but a few are starting to list products sold in physical shops.
Such sites do not sell products directly but – in a similar way to Souqalmal.com, which compares financial products – redirect users to other stores such as Souq.com, Namshi.com and MarkaVIP.
Mr Khalaf, 30, was interested in buying a Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone – but less keen on spending hours traversing walkways in a mall.
“There are a lot of mobile phone stores in the Mall of the Emirates … but I’m not the sort of guy that likes to go from one shop to another, comparing,” he says.
Mr Khalaf, a Jordanian who works as a financial analyst for the telecoms company du, took his search online, but again was met with a daunting number of retailers. And so he eventually turned to the comparison site Pricena.com, where he found the phone listed for Dh2,500 via Crazydeals.ae – a saving of about Dh300.
Hamzeh Taher, another Dubai resident, says he saved Dh100 on an iPad Air after searching on Pricena. “Buying from online retailers is cheaper than buying from the stores. They only have a couple of employees and don’t need to pay rent,” he adds.
Pricena launched in the UAE in July 2013, and later in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and currently lists about 350,000 products in categories such as computers, watches and fashion. It claims 400,000 monthly visitors, with revenues from referrals to other sites and advertising.
Other shopping comparison services include Bkam.com – which in The National’s test came up with the best offer on the new Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphone – along with Cellsouq.com and Meefind.com. Many sites specialise in electronics, but the Dubai government’s Sallety.ae solely tracks food prices.
Haneen Dabain, founder of Pricena, says her site can help users save hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dirhams. For example, Pricena shows a Canon EOS-1D X camera on sale with one online store for Dh19,000 – and a whopping Dh27,999 with another.
“Identifying such great price differences is almost impossible without a price comparison website,” says Ms Dabain.
“As we track historic prices on Pricena, it shows that stores are constantly changing their prices to compete in the top three price ranks. However, some stores still choose to offer higher prices because they position themselves as best in quality of service, brand recognition, faster delivery, etc.”
The average differences between the cheapest and most expensive prices listed on Pricena depends on the product category. For headphones, the average difference is Dh823, while for mobile phones it is Dh769.
The site currently monitors only online stores, which it indexes automatically in a similar way to how Google trawls websites. But Ms Dabain says the trickier task of tracking prices in physical stores is also on the agenda.
That is something already being done by ShopShopME, which lists almost a million products for sale in the UAE. The site has signed up about 20 offline retailers, and says these product listings will go live this month.
Price comparison is not the unique selling point of ShopShopME – although the site plans to ramp up that aspect of its service. The site is more like a “Google for retail”, says Moustafa Mahmoud, chief executive at Mena Commerce, which runs ShopShopME.
“Our vision was not just to compare online prices, but to provide a search engine for consumers so they can shop across online and offline stores,” he says.
The point of the site is to give a platform to display products for both big established players and smaller online retailers.
It targets shoppers who want to research and filter items online instead of spending “two weeks in The Dubai Mall” trying to find the product they are after, according to Mr Mahmoud.
Online retailers say that the emergence of price comparison sites is stirring up the market by boosting competition between players – translating to more bargains.
“We’re seeing direct referrals and conversions to revenue from some of the more prominent ones,” says Omar Kassim, the chief executive of Jadopado, a Dubai-based online marketplace. “On the flip side they provide more transparency and to some extent stir up the competition.”
The e-commerce market is worth about $2.5 billion a year in the UAE, and is expected to grow to $10bn by 2018, according to research firm Frost & Sullivan.
Mr Kassim says that price comparison sites will drive more consumers to purchase online – at the expense of “bricks and mortar” shops.
“If an offline retailer isn’t visible and a consumer sees a bunch of options that allow them to successfully transact, it’s a loss for that retailer,” he adds.
Despite the cheap prices listed on comparison sites, some physical retailers warned of a catch that UAE shoppers should be wary of.
“The UAE is a fairly competitive market and we have to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples,” says Ashish Panjabi, the chief operating officer of Jacky’s Retail. “Even for the same product, you may see a difference in pricing online and offline, but in an online environment, not all products sold carry an official warranty.”
But Mr Kassim says there is more to online retail than cheap prices – something evidenced by the fact that not all users of price comparison sites go for the lowest-cost option. Good customer service associated with a particular retail brand is also important, he says.
“In terms of consumer electronics, a number of retailers focus on price-based selling while others don’t,” says Mr Kassim.
“Personally I’m not a believer in the fight to the bottom – you need to provide the right price, and balance that against service and value.”