Social buying seemed like such a wonderful concept at the beginning when my friends started talking about it three years ago. But it seems to me that after the novelty has worn off, so did a lot of the interest in such sites.
It is one of the standard arguments of these sites that ‘everybody loves a bargain’. But that is only partially true when it comes to the Middle East because in this culture there is a general attitude that it is somehow cheap to try to save money through bargains. When they are complimented on a nicely fitting new blouse or fashionable pair of jeans, most of the people I know will emphasize how dear that item was and would not readily admit if they had snapped up a bargain.
However, there is also the opposite trend where young professional Middle Easterners of my generation praise their bargains and social-buying sites may have quite a lot to do with that. “I feel a certain rush when I find a service I want in a place I like on these websites,” says Masha, a frequent user of social-buying sites. “It is as if I am somehow smarter than the rest who paid full price or didn’t know where to look for the deal. It makes the service that much nicer.”
Some operators of social-buying sites were obviously able to convey the image that it is both trendy and smart to score a deal, especially when it comes to services. The top-selling deals on most of these sites are for services such as personal care and for experiences like restaurants or lessons in skills such as French cooking or yoga classes.
However, the psychological appeal of a deal alone will not be enough to draw in new users and make them repeat customers. The sites also need to prove themselves in offering attractive brands and in creating a link between the popularity of these brands and their own. “Groupon and Cobone are the sites I check out the most because they have the best suppliers,“ explains Layla, a fan of social buying who lives in Dubai.
Cobone, a site founded locally in the United Arab Emirates, and Groupon Middle East, the local branch of the global market leader in social buying, are generally seen as the most popular sites of this type in the UAE. In becoming popular, sites can make their deals buzz and have a better chance to create followings. On the other hand, even a popular site may experience that, when the brand it is marketing is not strong, a deal can linger on the site for while, as is the case with certain beach resorts in Lebanon. Even a discount of more than 50 percent on an unpopular resort’s admission will not be enough to make it sell online.
Sites can be a gateway to experiences if the experience is novel and is made to be “fun sounding”. This lowers our resistance to try something new if the price is right, and this is what social-buying sites count on. “I once saw a deal for Salsa dancing lessons,” says Jad, a user of UAE-based site Makhsoom, “and it was something I hadn’t thought of trying; it sounded like fun and came at a good price, so I said why not, and gave it a try.”
This in no way implies that people who buy a lesson in the oud or the sitar out of curiosity will all sign up for enough training to become a Munir Bashir or Ravi Shankar — or even go and redeem their first coupon — but it is a fact that the sites can help foreigners access the local culture in a place such as Dubai where expats are the dominant users of social buying. “I am in Dubai for a relatively short time for work, so I take advantage of any offer I find to experience the country without spending much,” David, a British teacher in the Dubai American Academy, told me, adding that his favorite bargains are for restaurants and exclusive beach resorts.
The cloud of fraud
Among the drawbacks of social-buying sites is the potential for fraud. With stories of phishing and new viruses coming up every day, especially in Lebanon where I live, many people here are reluctant to use their debit or credit cards online. Banks offer “safe” online-buying cards, but this requires a trip to the bank and takes away from the convenience of any e-commerce experience. “I have sometimes found attractive deals online, but none have tempted me enough to get a credit card and buy them,” says Dima, a professional working in architecture. I share this view. Some local social-buying sites like ScoopCity invite you to pay at their offices, but this still seems inconvenient.
As time goes by, someone like myself who is not a full-fledged fan of social buying, discovers more downsides to the sites: they generally offer no cash refunds for unused deals, their customer service is not always as good as I need it to be, and after browsing page after page of similar offers, I ask myself, “Nabila, do you really want this?”
According to frequent users, the quality of deals goes down on most of the sites they are visiting and bargains then linger that much longer on internet shelves, catching virtual dust. If asked what social buying can do better in the region, my answer is that useful and appealing deals, combined with a safe and convenient method of payment, would have me taking a second look at social buying.