Tunisia's e-commerce and retail sector set to expand with technological developments and growing support for franchisees

Low consumer confidence coupled with inflation and compromised purchasing power on the back of a weak dinar have characterised Tunisia’s retail sector in recent years. Nonetheless, distribution networks continue to improve and expand, while the presence of global brands and franchises is on the rise.

Tunisia’s retail market remains, however, underdeveloped relative to North African peers, in particular to Morocco and Egypt. This results in a number of significant opportunities that are available for both domestic and international operators, particularly in areas such as e-commerce, among others.

Structure & Oversight

Similar to other North African countries, Tunisia’s retail sector is dominated by small local shops, and more than 210,000 grocery shops thought to be dispersed throughout the country. However, modern distribution channels are slowly making inroads and currently represent some 20% of the retail sector, which the government plans to increase to 50% over the coming years.

At present, modern retail is dominated by three groups: Magasin Général, Mabrouk and Ulysse Trading & Industrial Companies, which each hold around onethird of the market. Together, they oversee some 250 modern food outlets. In order to protect the current market combination of souqs (traditional markets), small stores and larger chains, Tunisia enforces the need to work with local firms in joint ventures. Legislation also exists to protect smaller business, and the number of hypermarkets, in particular, is limited in any one area, with permits required by the Ministry of Industry and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises.

According to Santander Trade, an online portal affiliated with Spain’s Santander Bank, modern distribution channels in Tunisia generated approximately 22% of sector turnover throughout 2016 – a level not dissimilar to European countries, which reached upwards of 23%. This equates to TD660m ($229.2m) in annual sales, which represented roughly 3% of GDP that year.

Purchasing Power

Tunisia’s retail sector is impeded by a range of factors – first and foremost its relatively small population of 11.6m, a figure that has grown by an average of 1.2% per year since 2000. An estimated two-thirds of the population and approximately 80% of the country’s spending power is located in the capital Tunis and in coastal towns, meaning that modern retail is highly concentrated.

According to data from the World Bank, GDP per capita fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 to hit $3446, its lowest level since 2006. This is primarily due to a weaker dinar, and as the country is a net importer of food products, it has impacted the purchasing power of the Tunisian population and has seen the average grocery basket size and value decline since the 1990s. The decline in overall purchasing power has seen a surge in the informal sector, with the parallel market representing up to 54% of GDP, or an estimated loss of TD2.6bn ($903.1m) in taxes for the government, according to international media reports from March 2018. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s agenda to eliminate corruption, however, could help restore the trust in institutions and thus reduce the informal economy, which employs approximately 1m people.

Franchising

Prior to 2009 franchises were reluctant to enter Tunisia due to a case-by-case approval process. However, legislation introduced in 2009 removed the pre-approval process for 26 sectors, including retail and distribution. To further address bottlenecks, in 2015 the Tunisian Academy of Franchising was established to provide support to people wishing to set up a new franchise, and the $50m Tunisia Credit Guarantee Facility was established in order to guarantee necessary loans to local Tunisian franchisees.

As a result of these initiatives, an increasing number of franchisees have entered the country, including 12 US-based chains as of mid-2018. Among the wellknown franchises already present in Tunisia are KFC, Chili’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King. “The fastest-growing segments in the current market are food services and textiles,” Mourad Raboudi, master franchiser of local signage firm Signarama, told OBG.

The first official guide to creating a franchise in Tunisia was published in late 2018, outlining the legal, financial and contractual considerations involved, with the goal of demystifying the process and encouraging the creation of more franchises amid an economic backdrop of social unrest, inflation and high unemployment. “The current economic situation in Tunisia makes it really hard to set up a franchise, which costs around $150,000. Moreover, the political instability and sluggish purchasing power of the middle class are deterrents to many entrepreneurs,” Raboudi said.

Malls

In addition to franchises, the same 2009 legislation paved the way for the emergence of modern commercial centres in Tunisia, which have helped to attract big brand names to the country. With most retail real estate either a class B or a class C, the 2015 opening of Tunisia Mall marked a new era in the retail sector. Originally a 37,000-sq-metre complex, in 2017 the mall was extended by a further 28,000 sq metres, bringing the complex to over 60,000 sq metres and the number of brands to above 130. Other large-scale shopping centre projects include the Bourgo Mall on Djerba island, which opened in 2018; Azur City mall near Ben Arous; and the 65,000-sq-metre Mall of Sousse. The latter two are both scheduled to open in September 2019. Elsewhere, the 60,000-sq-metre Tunis Garden City mall is expected to break ground in 2019 and is due for completion by the end of 2021.

The arrival of additional shopping centres is slated to bring in more large international brands to join the ones already present in Tunisia, such as DECATHLON, Zara, Mango, Celio, Massimo Dutti and GO Sport, among others. Of particular note are the recent market entry strategies of France’s Fnac and Darty.

E-commerce

As the number of shopping centres continues to expand, the presence of online shopping in Tunisia is also growing, albeit at a slower pace than other markets in Africa. Supporting this segment is the rising uptake of internet services by Tunisians. According to Internet World Stats, internet penetration rates have grown exponentially since 2000, rising from 17% in 2006 to 52% in 2016, and as of March 2019, Tunisia boasted the fourth-highest user penetration rate in Africa, at 67%, after Kenya, Liberia and the Seychelles. Moreover, 64% of Tunisians are on social media, well above the North African average of 40%. Despite this, market penetration for online sales remains weak, totalling TD166m ($57.7m) in 2017, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics. The majority, or 80%, of online transactions were from bill payments, ticket sales, telephone credit or hotel reservations, with other purchases remaining marginal.

Jumia, a pan-African online marketplace similar to Amazon, is the largest online actor in the Tunisian market, attracting more than 5m visits per month. Between November 2017 and April 2019 the number of Tunisians who had downloaded the Jumia app jumped from 90,000 to 350,000. However, product sales remain low, up from 9000 to 40,000. Since all sales are paid in cash upon delivery, the development of online payment systems would immediately enable the e-commerce platform to increase sales by 20%, Elyes Jeribi, CEO of Improvements to online payment facilities are under way, and 2019 should see the launch of a number of solutions to aid the expansion of e-commerce. For example, Monétique-Tunisie is preparing to roll out a smartphone payment solution in partnership with Moroccan software publishing company Hightech Payment Systems. Tunisian Post is also expected to launch an online payment solution. Meanwhile, the Union of E-commerce and Distance Selling is working on a new security certification that websites can apply for as a means to boost consumer confidence.

The lack of online payment solutions are not, however, the only impediment to the development of e-commerce. One of the biggest factors hindering operators from gaining a foothold in the market is the dinar’s non-convertible status, which restricts cross-border transactions. This limits the ability of local online companies to market their sites and also puts them at a competitive disadvantage to foreign companies present in the Tunisian market. As a result, international platforms such as Amazon and eBay are discouraged from marketing Tunisian products, which dampens potential exports, Abdellatif Najjar, general manager of IT services provider Prodexo and executive board member of the Union for E-commerce and Distance Selling, told international press in April 2019.

Going Forward

Despite the economic downturn and weaker purchasing power, the modern retail sector has expanded in recent years. International franchising continues to strengthen its foothold, while growth persists in the supermarket and mall segments. In addition, a recovery in the number of tourist arrivals is expected to help the retail sector post strong growth in the short term. With supermarkets sourcing around 75% of produce from the local market to limit their exposure to fluctuations in foreign currency, agro-industry also stands to benefit from developments in the retail space.

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