As technology makes websites more user-friendly, regional retailers expand and delivery options grow, online shopping in the UAE is easier than ever before, writes Manisha G Harkins
Online shopping used to be a basic three-step process: find product, buy product, get product delivered.
It was a functional pursuit for those who either could not or would not embark on shopping "proper". Shopaholics sacrificed the sensual pleasure of the boutique or mall for the benefit of a quick fix at any hour and swift delivery. Reluctant shoppers breathed a sigh of relief as the miserable trudge around aisles no longer loomed, leaving the postman or courier to do the footwork.
All of which made online shopping rather pointless for those based in the UAE. Flat, linear sites brought no pleasure and, more often than not, offered no delivery.
But that was then. Today technological developments have transformed online shopping. Gone are the days of clunky functionality and in its place are myriad experiences and purposes. And, when it comes to delivering on the virtual promise, a combination of innovative regional shopkeepers and a growing international awareness of the value of the UAE market means that what you see online is, increasingly, what you can actually get - though admittedly it may take a little extra effort. Many top sites still don't offer UAE delivery. But don't be disheartened.
As the analyst Natasha Grabov at Datamonitor Retail, explains, "Logistics companies are entering new markets, increasing the competitiveness in the parcel delivery market. This means more innovative and cheaper delivery for the retailer and customer."
Little wonder - this is a huge market destined to get bigger. According to Forrester's Asia Pacific Online Retail Forecast 2010 to 2015, "Online retail sales around the globe continue to increase. In both the US and Western Europe growth is expected to continue at a compound annual rate of 10 per cent over the next five years. Asia Pacific markets are set to grow faster. In China, the world's largest online population, total sales are expected to triple over five years."
Home design aficionados are no less demanding and these days shopping for house and home should, and can, be every bit as stylish and design-oriented an online experience as browsing for killer heels or this season's LBD.
The editor James Wallman of Future Laboratory's online trend publication LSN Global says, "Specific trends online include magtailing, whereby magazines are becoming retailers and vice versa."
One great example of this is www.1stdibs.com, with its Introspective Magazine consisting of the kind of shiny pages associated with an upmarket glossy lifestyle publication.
This is an online auctioneer, an exclusive purveyor of unique items that come not simply with footnotes or a catalogue number but with stories on influential designers, interiors/architecture/art updates, Saturday shopping pages and book reviews. It's a great hook, instantly engaging, and an "exclusive club" whose reach extends to the UAE.
As the UAE based-Lars Narfeldt, the CEO of Kollektion & Co, says, "If you know what you are looking for and know your way around antiquity dealers, then you can find the most beautiful things on earth at www.1stdibs.com. After more than two years of searching the globe, I found my favourite dining table there, a large 1959 original Eero Saarinen Tulip table from Mark McDonald in New York. To complete the set, I found six Tulip dining chairs from Tom Gibbs Studio in Boston. Boxed and crated, it flew into Dubai within a week, albeit not without trouble caused by the shipping agency GAC."
Michael Bruno, the president and founder of 1stdibs, explains, "We have sent many shipments to the UAE. Shipments are made by many carriers. UPS and Fed Ex are good for smaller shipments, and speciality carriers for larger items. The dealers on the site will coordinate shipments for the buyers. Also, buyers may make and pay for purchases on the website and the shipments will be managed by 1stdibs directly or the buyers may contact the dealers directly.'
Besides good magtailing sites there are other e-retail trends, says Wallman. "With furniture, unlike fashion, you're buying something that's going to be with you for a long time. This is why it's really important to have what is called 'no-line' or 'in-line' retail. In other words, it's not offline and it's not online. It's both.
"You research something for the home online, then you go in the store and feel the sofa. At the recent World Retail Congress, attendees were talking about the Ro-Po effect: research online, purchase offline. And statistics show that more than 60 per cent of retail sales are influenced by what customers find out online."
Ikea customers must make do with this as the company has no online shopping facility. But a visit to either www.ikeaabudhabi.com or www.ikeadubai.com to do your research may be preferable to a trawl through the crowded store. The sites provide prices, measurements, design tips and free home-planning advice.
Similarly, an increasing number of independent store owners in the UAE are finding ways of using the "Ro-Po" effect to their, and your, advantage using their websites as a virtual shop window. So shoppers based in Abu Dhabi can "shop" in Dubai without leaving the capital.
At www.bokjadesign.com, you can browse and choose what you want as furniture and products align before your eyes to a soundtrack of birdsong and visuals of fluttering birds.
The gorgeous Lebanese design collection slides along the pages and the site comes alive with texture, colour and pattern. All the up-to-date products in stock can be viewed when you enter the "new client login" page or customers can order any of the Classic Range, which can be produced in two to four weeks.
Also Lebanon-based, www.nadadebs.com is an e-shop in progress. The site is visually appealing, with pixelated patterns floating into position. You can choose Debs's new collection or well-known objects, then ring or e-mail her showroom to talk about pattern, colour and sizing before making an e-payment.
Both these stores are happy to organise UAE delivery on a case-by-case basis, with nadadebs.com estimating a delivery date of between four to six weeks after ordering. Nada Debs also plans to make home accessories available to purchase online in the future. In the meantime, both stores are using the internet to increase rather than diminish their links with their clients.
The Dubai-based designer and store owner Mimi Shakhashir and her two cousins have adopted a similar approach to e-commerce. They established O'de Rose in 2008 - a boutique for clothing, accessories, contemporary art and home decor by independent Arab-world designers, located in a residential villa on Al Wasl Road. Online customers can browse through white-washed rooms flanked with filigree arches, filled with Moroccan drinking glasses, hand-blown Syrian vases and Bokja furniture. The site is heavy on the visual and light on the practical, but the intention is to encourage client contact rather than facilitate a one-stop shop.
Nadine, one of the three founders, explains, "Whatever you see on the website, every piece is different, with Bokja, for example. But if you call or e-mail, depending on what it is, we will find a way to deliver. We've done it in the past and we can certainly deliver to Abu Dhabi. Our clients are special to us; we want to make them happy."
They have set up a Facebook page where customers can e-mail, chat with the owners and browse the latest stock albums. This is internet surfing and shopping with soul.
For a more fully fledged e-retail experience close to home, a number of funky sites offer recognised design brands complete with "style stories".
For instance, www.filini.com describes itself as a "boutique webshop". The co-founders Claudia van der Wef and Michiel J Schroeder. They use TNT and Aramex to courier their goods and delivery within the UAE is free.
The art and fashion boutique aura b (www.aura-b.com) is a delightful browse through a small, smart selection of home brands and art; www.boutique1.com offers home accessories from the likes of Turkey's Gaia & Gino and Alessi. Goods ordered between 9am and 4pm Friday to Wednesday can be delivered the next day for free within the UAE. Or, if you really can't wait for your Alessi Lily Pond sushi set, an extra Dh200 will buy you Style Express Delivery - delivery within four hours of purchase between 9am-4pm, Saturday to Thursday. All packages are insured against theft or accidental damage until you sign on receipt.
A wider range of larger items can be found at www.occa-home.co.uk, which is British-based but UAE friendly, taking the shopper through various looks: funky, comfy and fancy. VAT is automatically removed from the price for purchases outside the EU, but import duties and entry fees are not included.
Shipping costs depend on how big and/or heavy the goods are but are automatically calculated at checkout and "the best courier service for the size, weight and associated cost" is selected.
For an eccentric take on home decor, www.theshopfloorproject.com is run by the British mother and daughter Denise and Samantha Allan, who describe their quirky online site as part shop, part museum. They charge a flat-rate delivery fee of £14.25 for orders outside the EU and use the Royal Mail's International Signed for Delivery service.
The problem with this, as any UAE dweller will know, is that however well intentioned, such a service tends to fall at the first hurdle in the absence of street names and postcodes to enter into expectant e-retail order forms.
Which brings us back to the original problem that dogged online shoppers in the UAE: delivery. However helpful individual store owners and producers try to be, this has long been a stumbling block. But it is one that many resourceful UAE residents have begun to circumvent by opening an account with Aramex.
This supplies shoppers with a UK or US PO Box and then distributes their goods from a central warehouse to the UAE allowing shoppers to buy online from e-shops that don't deliver. Aramex's "Shop and Ship" option can be used to ship goods up to 40kg and takes between four to six working days. Anything heavier is classified as cargo and costs US$39 extra for the first additional 1/2kg and $30 per 1/2kg thereafter, and takes longer to deliver. Insurance is 2.5 per cent of the shipping fees for most goods; 3.5 per cent for some electronics like laptops or mobile phones.
It is a simple solution. But then as Wallman points out, "The future [of internet shopping] is not about space-age stuff. It's about reconnecting."
Increasingly that's just what e-retailers are doing.