Rivals prepare to challenge Amazon over pandemic festive period

A shopper at a Walmart store ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday in the US. Smaller retailers are challenging Amazon’s dominance as a seller of holiday gifts. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 November 2020

Rivals prepare to challenge Amazon over pandemic festive period

  • New services by smaller players seek to take drudgery out of gift giving

NEW YORK: Walmart, Best Buy and hundreds of smaller retailers are bolstering their online gift features, hoping to challenge Amazon’s dominance as a seller of holiday gifts to homebound shoppers.

The new services seek to take some of the drudgery out of gift-giving. The features let consumers purchase a present online and have it delivered to the recipient with, for example, the retailer handling wrapping, a personal message or a receipt that does not show the gift’s price.

Amazon’s rivals have tried to chip away at its online preeminence, spending millions to fulfill orders faster, expand product catalogs and, in some cases, provide free shipping and even subscription services. But the first holiday sales season with widespread coronavirus has drawn attention to a previously overlooked battlefront: Gift giving.

Consumers flocked to Walmart and other retailers early in the pandemic when Amazon was at times slow to deliver essentials including toilet paper. 

Now, Amazon competitors see another opportunity to seize market share.

“This is an area of opportunity where smaller or large retailers could differentiate given most consumers will be doing their holiday shopping online this year,” said Bobby Figueroa, who worked for Amazon’s ad sales unit before founding retail analytics startup Gradient.

Walmart.com on Oct. 28 added a “gift eligible” label on hundreds of thousands of US product pages, including for toilet paper, a status previously not displayed until checkout. Gift eligible means Walmart can send gift receipts as well as let shoppers customize an email greeting. It will also ship the item in its boxes, concealing manufacturer packaging.

With gift-giving already up from last year, Walmart increased its inventory of laptops, loungewear and exercise equipment ahead of the holidays. Shoppers can search specifically for only gift-eligible items for the first time.

BestBuy.com in mid-October added an option for gift receipts with store pickups. It also started allowing shoppers to arrange for Best Buy to email gift recipients with a festive greeting on the same day that items are delivered.

Estee Lauder Companies Inc. this year is using technology from startup SmartGift that added options across five of its websites for shoppers to designate cosmetics and other items as gifts while letting recipients select color, size or scent before shipping.




Consumers this year are putting savings from skipped outings due to the coronavirus into celebrating Christmas and other year-end holidays. (AFP)

Americans will spend $160 billion on gifts during the current quarter, up 5 percent from a year ago as people put savings from skipped outings into celebrating Christmas and other year-end holidays, according to industry analyst Coresight Research.

Adobe’s e-commerce software unit Magento expects Americans to ship gifts to 18 percent more recipients than a year ago as travel is curbed.

But Coresight still expects Amazon.com to capture 18 percent of gift purchases and 7.2 percent of overall US retail sales, up from 14 percent of gift purchases and 5.6 percent of total sales in 2019.

It pushed its annual sales event Prime Day to October from July as an early start to holiday shopping, and it brought forward the release of its annual guide of potential gifts to just before. The guide, which included new sections for items from small and Black-owned businesses, was Amazon’s largest ever.

The company has long provided basic gift features. It charges several dollars to gift-wrap shipments, and a free message of up to 240 characters per item can be printed on black-and-white gift receipts. A year ago, it started offering emailed gift receipts and messages for some items, with links to let recipients initiate a return and send a thank you note.

But some consumers are frustrated that Amazon does not offer options that others do, such as the ability to specify delivery date or gift wrap color, have recipients enter their shipping address or send gift messages by text, video and physical card.

“The gift thing on Amazon is completely broken,” said Lawrence Greenberg, 54, a financial planner in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He said that he will buy elsewhere when possible after four of his gift recipients over the past three years either did not notice or receive the printed gift message. Just last month, a client puzzled for two weeks over who sent cocktail glasses until Greenberg asked.

Amazon said that its gift features remain popular.

Jeff Jordan, 33, of Charlotte, shipped three Amazon purchases to himself this month, with plans to wrap and re-ship the gifts. He lost faith in Amazon last year when it wrapped a gadget for his parents in a gray plastic sleeve with a tiny gift tag and a wad of tissue paper.

Though Amazon apologized and refunded, Jordan said that he had “learned his lesson.” 


Economic boost tipped after UAE company ‘game-changer’

Updated 25 November 2020

Economic boost tipped after UAE company ‘game-changer’

  • Dramatic overhaul of corporate ownership laws follows accelerated reforms to shrug off pandemic slowdown

DUBAI: Radical changes to corporate ownership and investment laws could provide a significant boost to the UAE as it seeks to emerge from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, business experts told Arab News.

The Emirati authorities have announced a raft of changes that relax restrictions on foreign ownership and make it easier for international businesses to set up and operate in the UAE, as well as new rules that will allow more shares to be listed on the country’s stock exchanges.

Economics expert Nasser Saidi said: “The liberalization of foreign ownership laws breaks down major barriers to the right of establishment. The reform is a game-changer.”

Tarek Fadlallah, CEO of Nomura Asset Management in the Middle East, said: “I would like to see some more detail, but if the deal is that you can leave London or New York and set up easily in the UAE, it’s revolutionary in regional terms.”

The changes were announced in the form of a presidential decree. “Maybe it’s pandemic related, but everything the UAE authorities have done this year has been extremely positive for the business and financial environment,” Fadlallah added.

Under the changes, companies seeking to quote shares on UAE markets will be able to list up to 70 percent of their shares, a big jump from the previous 30 percent limit, in a move that could reinvigorate local stock markets.

“It will encourage foreign direct investment, but also lead to a recapitalization of jointly owned companies and encourage entrepreneurs to invest in businesses and new ventures. Importantly, it will encourage the retention of savings in the UAE,” Saidi added.

The most eye-catching of the planned changes is the move to allow foreign firms to set up outside free zones without the requirement for a majority Emirati shareholder or agent.

The new set-up will in theory open the way for full foreign ownership throughout the UAE, although the Emirati authorities have been pragmatic in the past in their efforts to attract big-name foreigners. Apple was allowed full foreign ownership when it set up its first store in the country five years ago. 

Pandemic restrictions have hit an already sluggish UAE economy. (AFP)

More foreign firms setting up onshore could be seen as a threat for the free-zone model that has been one of the driving forces behind the UAE’s rise to become the regional business hub.

Habib Al-Mulla, executive chairman of Baker & McKenzie Habib Al-Mulla law firm, said: “Free zones will now face a real challenge. They either come up with a new package of incentives or their role ends.”

Other proposed changes also represent a break from the traditional business culture in the region. Rules that required a company chairperson to be an Emirati national, and for company boards to have an Emirati majority, have also been removed.

In addition, the decree allows for the dismissal of a chairman or any other board member if a judicial judgment is issued against them for committing fraud or misuse of power, while enabling stakeholders to sue a company in civil court over any failure of duty that results in damages.

Electronic voting will also be allowed at shareholder meetings, in a departure from the requirement for a physical show of hands.

“The decree is reflective of the UAE’s forward-looking vision to open up its economy by creating a favorable legislative environment that will keep pace with the changes taking place across the global economy and supporting companies operating in the country,” the official UAE news agency, WAM, said.

Some sectors regarded as of strategic importance — such as energy, utilities, and government-owned businesses — will be exempt from the new rules, and there is a certain amount of discretion given to local authorities in setting rules regarding Emirati directors and determining fees and charges payable under the new regulations.

This week’s changes are the latest in a series of reforms that have been accelerated in the UAE since the COVID-19 pandemic recession struck an already sluggish business scene.

New rules on residency visas have been introduced to alleviate problems in the real estate market, especially in Dubai, as well as a range of changes to social and lifestyle reforms.

“Along with the change in visa regulations, the new reforms will boost the UAE’s growth prospects,” Saidi said.

Ziad Daoud, Dubai-based chief emerging markets economist at Bloomberg, said: “Diversifying stock markets away from oil requires attracting foreign investment as well as fixing the distorted labor market. Most other measures are cosmetic. We’ll see how they are implemented, but the initial assessment of the new regulations is positive.”