The Future of WhatsApp Shopping

The fastest, easiest way to shop just might be here to stay.

Since new COVID-19 lockdown regulations has required gyms, salons and malls to temporarily close their doors, Curated Today interviews Ramy Assaf, Founder Zbooni for his expert insight on what established brands and SBOs in GCC can do to effectively fulfill consumers’ needs.

About Zbooni

Zbooni is a technology company and app that was founded in Dubai in 2017. The connected chat commerce app enables merchants to easily conduct transactions with customers via preferred social media and chat services. The company was incubated at Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, and is backed by regional and international organisations, including Chalhoub Group, Middle East Venture Partners and B&Y Venture Capital.

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc from Pexels

In a Curated Today’s 2020 survey to 87 GCC residents aged 25-65 re: COVID-19’s effects on shopping behavior, a majority of participants forecasted a variety of bricks & mortar (B&M) industry changes to occur in the near future. Common responses included: closing down some or all of B&M, decreasing physical store sizes to instead sell more online, laying off staff, implementing AR/VR and shopping through digital communication platforms such as WhatsApp.

Evidently, COVID-19 has changed the way that retail interacts with clients on a daily basis. Before the days of local chat commerce platform, Zbooni, offline service companies, SBOs, consultants, trainers, hairdressers, freelancers and more found it challenging to communicate and transact virtually with clients.

To this end, Curated Today speaks to Ramy Assaf, Founder of payment startup Zbooni, a technology company which has recently incurred an influx of new merchants due to COVID-19’s trade restrictions. Thanks to the platform, consumers and merchants now enjoy frictionless transaction and communication options in one, all via WhatsApp.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

1. What triggered you to start Zbooni in 2017?

The inspiration came from observing how my wife had recently started a small business. She and a friend were selling custom beach hats. All they did was have a cool product, and an Instagram page. They didn’t have a website/ecommerce site. Their customers were simply messaging them on WhatsApp/DM to order. I got intrigued by this new mode of commerce happening. I realized that consumer behavior had shifted, and actually that the world was at this point of convergence between chat & online commerce.

2. How have you noticed that shopper behavior has generally evolved since 2017 (excluding COVID-19)?

When it comes to shopper/consumer behavior. I feel like what we’re seeing is a bit of a “Goldilocks Effect”. To talk to you customers over the phone is “too hot” and intrusive. To talk to your customers by email is “too cold” and impersonal. Seems that chat (i.e. WhatsApp) is “just right”. We’ve been seeing this trend more and more, and smart businesses have already adopted strategies of using chat as a b2c channel. That is now accelerating, as face to face business in the wake of COVID-19 is at a standstill, this new channel which had been considered a “nice to have” in terms of omni-channel strategy has quickly emerged as a “must have” in any sales strategy.

3. What are COVID-19’s side effects on Small Business Owners (SBOs) today?

From what we’re seeing, there are different impacts depending on the business. What’s interesting to me is how resilient some businesses are today. Many small-businesses that don’t rely on a retail lease can operate in a spaceless capacity. This means their overhead costs can be pretty minimal. Especially in service businesses. A lot of these types are going to be able to bear the grunt of this mess. However, the impact on retail and physically dependent businesses is far more serious. The ones who are adapting quickly will be fine, but others who are simply waiting for things to go back to how they were before COVID-19, will probably not make it out of this in one piece.

4. What advice do you have for SBOs who are struggling to break-even due to COVID-19?

Adapt to the new reality, don’t sit back and wait it out. I’ve seen different inspiring stories. For example gyms/trainers moving into Zoom based classes. Restaurants that are offering at home cooking kits of their favorite restaurant meals. This is a time to re-think your strategy and keep your business/brand present and show your customers you are still relevant. If you’re stuggling to break even, and not able to survive a long duration of this impact, then maybe it’s time to incorporate new strategies or potentially pivot into something else that is more resilient. I would see this as simply an acceleration into digital commerce.

5. What kind of businesses and/or industries leverage from Zbooni most?

A wide spectrum. We empower professional services (i.e. lawyers/video editors) to restaurants, to health and wellness services, ecommerce companies, luxury retail… pretty much every vertical you can imagine. In the COVID-19 era, we’re seeing much more in terms of mental health/wellness, physical training and kids education (all remote/online).

6. How exactly is Zbooni enabling businesses to keep afloat during COVID-19?

Our proposition has always been to provide a business with tools to enable remote transactions, where you and the customer are not face to face. We enable contactless payments, and digital invoicing/payment from the comfort of any mobile device. What we’re seeing now in terms of new sign-ups is through the roof. We quickly identified how bad the COVID-19 situation could be for many businesses ill-prepared for such a business disruption. We then decided that it would only be right to welcome them and make their transition easier by extending a free offer to them for their first 5K AED of sales. We pay for that out of pocket, and it’s just a gesture towards helping the community. We didn’t feel like this would be the time to take advantage of our service – but rather demonstrate some responsibility and show some love to the community. Just trying to do our bit here.

7. What are the benefits of using Zbooni for payment transacting versus standard payment gateway systems?

Standard payment gateways are very good at some things, and not good at others. What we found is that if you’re running an ecommerce website, you would definitely want a payment gateway that can facilitate the transactions and process payments. However, in today’s environment, businesses have gone beyond just ecommerce. You also have to serve your customers coming by way of WhatsApp/Instagram, or if you are at a pop-up event you need a way to accept a payment. It comes down to being able to serve your customers on the channel they are comfortable with; so Zbooni allows you to extend the transaction capability into scenarios that weren’t accounted for in a pre-social commerce context. Also, we take a lot of the headache out of the equation of getting setup, with a clear and transparent pricing model and no hidden fees.

 8. What is in Zbooni’s future?

We hope to continue building on our foundation with more product and commercial features that serves merchants. We have a number of ideas that we’d like to bring forward and we’re hoping to be the go-to option for any business looking to serve its customers more uniquely.

"Adapt to the new reality, don't sit back and wait it out."