When one of the MENA region’s top shopping channels wanted a change of gear to enhance its production and live broadcasting capabilities at its new facility in Dubai Studio City, they turned to Dubai-based systems integrator and distributor UBMS for a Blackmagic Design installation.
Within seconds of browsing through the Citruss World of Shopping website, my Arab friend decided she wanted the Balzano air-fryer. The compelling visuals of grease oozing out of traditional fryers, as the presenter extolled the virtues of healthy cooking, appealed to her current eat-healthy goals. At the newly appointed studios of Citruss TV in Dubai Studio City, we see the air-fryer, along with samples of jelabiyas (traditional attire for Arab women), mixers, beauty products and slimming pills, among other staples of home shopping television.
As Amr Moustafa, Head of TV Operations at the 14-year-old channel, takes BroadcastPro ME on a tour of the new studios to explain the Blackmagic equipment he has recently had installed, there is no mistaking the real hero of the story. It isn’t the new studios or even China’s Shark Shopping, one of China’s top three home shopping majors, which has purchased a 51% stake in Citruss TV, marking the very first overseas acquisition in the Chinese TV shopping industry.
It is, unmistakably, the Balzano air-fryer and the 400 other brands Citruss TV stocks in its warehouses and markets on its network. In 2017, the Dubai home shopping channel received 600,000 calls, increasing in 2018 to 720,000 calls (at the time of going to press). Despite the entry of rival brands such as ellay.com, Moustafa says, “We have enjoyed year-on-year growth of around 40% and these are numbers only for the five Gulf states of KSA, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait.
“We have a spot on Nilesat and Arabsat,” explains Moustafa, who has been with the channel since 2011. Having cut his teeth in the equally brutal world of music and sports broadcasting, he recognises the critical importance of placing the shopping channel in the appropriate content bouquet. “We launched our HD channel on December 9 on Arabsat 12111 Mhz. We also have two spots on MBC transponders, with four channels – the daily 2.5-hour slot on MBC4, with an hour in the afternoon and 1.5 hours in the night.”
For the product-savvy Arab woman aged 35-45, the product-sourcing team at Citruss TV, also housed in the boutique studio, scan the globe for exclusive products.
“A lot of our high-sellers are exclusive,” reveals Moustafa. “These products are available only with us in the region and we also offer after-sales service. Lately, we have been doing very well with high-end brands such as Versus from Versace, among others. Colourful jelabiyas are a huge hit. The big challenge for any home shopping TV network is establishing credibility with the buyer. We have to make sure the product is really good, the price point is correct for the market and after-sales is a guarantee.”
Much like its online retail counterparts, Citruss TV has a straightforward money-back return policy. Payment can be made by credit card or cash on delivery, among other options. “Viewers can just WhatsApp a screen grab to us to place an order,” says Moustafa, underlining the ease of making a purchase.
There are challenges, however, that MENA-based home shopping TV networks must contend with.
While recent figures show that more than a quarter (29%) of Middle East consumers shop online, the majority are aged 15-25 and use mobile devices to do so. In response to evolving trends, the Egypt-based technical team at Citruss TV has developed an app for mobile devices, and a global online web portal handles e-commerce. But the soul of operations is linear television, with presenters making a case for the latest vacuum cleaner or kitchenware by Jordanian celebrity chef Manal Al Alem.
While admitting that more event-based buzz needs to be created for the shopping channel, Moustafa highlights the efforts being made. “To create word-of-mouth publicity, we have influencers who recommend us, and we have invited our shoppers to our studios for makeovers and day-long shopping with our presenters. The biggest challenge for home shopping channels, besides getting exclusive deals, is to have credible presenters who can persuade viewers to buy a product.”
With the average basket valued at $160, products are aimed at Arab women in Saudi Arabia, followed by the UAE and Kuwait, among other GCC countries. While people do not necessarily sit down to watch home shopping, Citruss TV enjoys MENA-wide visibility, positioned as it is with popular MBC channels. Acknowledging that viewership has almost doubled since the slots were purchased, Moustafa reiterates: “When viewers browse between the MBC channels, they come upon our home shopping channels.”
A pioneering name in home shopping in the region, Citruss TV had an unlikely start when Michael Trueschler, a German investment banker, decided to partner with Belgian MBA graduate Nicolas Bruylants to start a home shopping TV network in 2005. Despite initial scepticism from broadcasters and the market, the network has demonstrated successful rounds of funding, with independent investment and financial advisory firm Valoris Capital acquiring a 30% stake in 2014. Saudi broadcaster MBC recently extended its partnership with Citruss TV.
The 2017 investment by China’s Shark Shopping saw Citruss TV invest in an integrated production studio and headquarters, and Chinese expertise is already making a mark.
“Our buyers have access to exclusive products from Shark’s inventory, and we have our presenters and crew travelling to their studios in Beijing to shoot segments of the show. More products will lead to more productions, more shows and more sales,” adds Moustafa.
At the time of the acquisition of the 51% stake, Shark Shopping President Jason Kong said that the group would focus on furniture, kitchen and home appliances for Middle Eastern consumers, at prices 20% cheaper than the local market. “We’ll bring in new products from China and will also export products from the Middle East to China that are in demand there,” he is reported to have said.
In the 14 years since Citruss TV made its mark as the region’s first home shopping TV channel, the company has built partnerships with local suppliers in the five Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. The channel’s 24/7 call centres are in Lebanon and Jordan and the technical support team is in Egypt.
“80% of our sales comes from Saudi Arabia. Aramex is our partner and they give us space in their warehouse. They deliver the product as well and that lends tremendous credibility with the end user”
Amr Moustafa, Head of TV Operations, Citruss TV
As we walk through the very busy Citruss TV studio, which houses nearly 110 people including Chinese COO Samuel Pang, the product is never far from the discussion.
“Not everything works,” reveals Moustafa as we take in the samples stacked in the buyer’s department. TV shopping experts will tell you that a product needs to be demonstrable, a problem-solver and easy to understand, among other factors. Also, with customers bombarded with myriad options, Citruss TV needs to offer its viewer “the best option”.
The company has a rigorous three-month testing phase, he says. But to an audience that typically watches only 17 channels on average, despite hundreds on offer, the likes of Citruss TV will have to up their game. Also, beyond the product-savvy older female demographic, Citruss TV needs to be relevant to younger consumers. “We have a website, a mobile app and we have social media presence, but we would like to be bigger than what we currently are,” admits Moustafa.
The de rigueur question about the economic downturn elicits a surprising response: “We have seen an increase in business. It seems people always want to shop, and with WhatsApp, we have made it easier than ever for the audience to make purchases.”
Currently employing 140 people across five countries, he believes permanent crew will grow as the number of productions increases. The new studios have opened exciting new possibilities for his team.
He says: “The previous residents of the studio had cut the studio in half and built two studios. The UBMS-installed control room allows me to switch between the studios. I have five cameras for Studio A and three for Studio B upstairs, including a shoulder cam. On any given day, we shoot between eight and nine products. While we are shooting down below, the products for the next shoot are being prepped in the studio upstairs. Home and fitness products will be in Studio A, and Studio B will be dedicated to jewellery, fashion and beauty. We have currently suspended work on Studio B as we are looking for an appropriate video wall.”
Moustafa hopes the new studios will be a stepping stone to the ultimate dream of every home shopping channel – to go live and interact in real time with the end users so that viewers know “we don’t Photoshop anything and what they are seeing is the real deal”.