There’s been a flurry of mother and baby website launches in the Emirates this year, with “mumpreneurs” spotting a gap in the market. But who will grow and last the distance?
Savvy mums build web empires
Kirsten Fairfield and her friend and business partner, Paula Harrington, lead busy lives. Not only are they both mothers of two young children, but they are also the founders of bubsboutique.com, an online store they set up in 2009 for babies and children under five.
The Dubai-based expatriates juggle their home-grown business around the needs of their children, relying on nap times and evenings to catch up on e-mails and get ahead on deliveries.
While the concept of "mumpreneurs" - women using their newfound knowledge of motherhood to launch a child-centric business - has been around for sometime in the UAE, online mother, baby and child stores have not.
Which is why the British business owners of BubsBoutique were surprised by the sudden flurry of online store launches catering to their niche market.
"At first, we looked at all the new competitors and thought, 'Oh my'," says Mrs Fairfield, the mother of Jessica, aged three, and Aidan, one, who moved to the UAE with her husband, a commercial manager, in 2007. "But it has made us stronger and we've worked so much harder. The more sites there are, the more likely people are to shop online because people always shop around, so it's not a bad thing."
Among the new launches in the UAE's mother, baby and child segment this year is 6ambabies.com, an online store specialising in organic clothing and accessories for newborns and under threes that went live last month, and blushandbloom.com, which focuses on the needs of pregnant women as well as offering newborn baby products.
But one thing is clear; all the women behind these ventures launched their sites because they spotted a gap in the market and felt the rise of e-commerce offered them a business model they could work around other commitments in their lives.
"Many women start up their own business after they have children as a way to make their schedules more flexible," says Karima Berkani, a research analyst at Euromonitor International. "How likely their business is to succeed or fail depends on a number of variables. However, baby and children's products have proven recession proof in the UAE. While consumers may trade down or limit spending on food and clothing purchases for themselves, they are unlikely to cut spending on their children.
"Total internet retailing in the UAE is expected to grow 14 per cent in 2011 to reach Dh833 million and new mothers know better than anyone which baby products are available in the UAE and because they are also using these products, are able to offer advice."
This was certainly the case for the women behind BubsBoutique.
"We both had six-month-old children and were both keen to go back to work, but part-time jobs weren't freely available," says Mrs Fairfield, a former PR executive. "So when we received an e-mail from another online store that was closing up and selling their stock, we went to have a look."
The duo invested Dh60,000 in their venture, selling only 10 brands to begin with and renting bigger villas to store their merchandise rather than a warehouse to keep costs down.
"We launched when the market was in turmoil, so we were very conservative," says Mrs Harrington, the mother of Samuel, three and William, 14 months, who moved to the UAE in 2007 with her banker husband. "That's probably why it took us so long to grow our customer base because we couldn't afford to advertise."
Today, the entrepreneurs sell more than 50 brands, stock 700 products and have seen their sales revenue increase by 54 per cent since last year. But they admit launching an e-commerce venture in such a small retail market does not guarantee big bucks as the pair reinvest all their profits back into their business and are yet to take a wage.
"We put in 40-hour weeks each, are available 24 hours a day to take phone calls and often work on weekends to ensure orders get out on time. And we are not earning anywhere near what we did before," says Mrs Harrington, a former HR executive. "There are times when you think, 'should we go back to work?' But we can see the potential. With so many websites starting up, people are obviously thinking, 'Oh, that looks easy', and you can throw a tonne of cash at something, but you have to work so hard to get it back and there are weeks when I spend hardly any quality time with my boys."
Jenny Haddad is the founder of dubaibabies.com, the first online baby store to launch in the UAE in 2006. The mother of Maya, aged four, and Max, two, launched her business before she had children because she wanted a gift service that would wrap and deliver presents to her friends giving birth. And she agrees that running an online venture is hard work.
"You can't just do it within school hours. If you're going to do it and do it properly, then that means time away from the kids. Some mums do go into things a bit blindly thinking, 'I can make it fit', but it takes over."
For Mrs Haddad, a former events manager and air hostess who moved to the UAE in 2003, where she met her husband, a hotelier, watching so many other similar concepts launch has been interesting.
"I used to spend a lot of time worrying about what they're doing, but now I just get on with what I'm doing," she says. "I need to be aware of how many sites are launching, but I'm more concerned about keeping my clients happy."
Although some of the smaller ventures such as 6ambabies, Blush and Bloom and BubsBoutique are either run solely by their founders or a small team, the most recent - and perhaps high-profile operation to hit the market - is mumzworld.com.
The brainchild of Mona Ataya, the founding partner and chief executive, the Dubai-based bilingual shopping portal acts as a shopfront for hundreds of brands and sells more than 15,000 items.
But while the other online concepts in existence are largely privately funded, Ms Ataya, who has lived in the UAE since 2000 and is also one of the founders of the online job portal bayt.com, had the backing of Bayt's investors to launch her enterprise.
As a result, her portal offers consumers a search and compare option as well as an instant chat with the company's customer service team and expert online forums - something Mrs Ataya believes makes her different from the other e-commerce models in her segment.
"I don't feel we have the competition because no one has the same platform as ours. Our platform is the largest selection of mother, baby and child products in the region. So if you've shopped on Mumzworld, you've shopped everywhere."
Mrs Ataya, a Lebanese-American and mother to seven-year-old twins, Sufian and Tareq, and Yousef, four, decided to set up the company after returning to work from an extended maternity leave.
Her inspiration came from her own struggle to find the products she needed for her children, forcing her to ship everything from the US and UK.
And by teaming up with Bayt, she was able to turn her idea into reality in just six months because she had access to the company's business development team and her own staff of 22 for data-entry and customer service.
As a result, Mrs Ataya has big plans. "Mumzworld can and will become a giant for e-commerce shopping and will change the playing field. We're going to be the one-stop destination for everything mother, baby and child - whether it's buying or finding out information and once that's achieved, I can rest and focus on other things."
But starting small can pay off, too.
Mrs Haddad's DubaiBabies business has expanded from a single site to three, with AbuDhabiBabies and SaudiBabies launching last year. She also has a kiosk in Mercato Mall in Dubai and this year opened her first stand-alone retail store in Dubai's Town Centre.
"We're growing it from a group perspective and that's starting to generate something proper, whereas one little website didn't," she says.
"If I shut it down now, that would make a sizeable difference to the family income. We don't have an investor behind us, so when you're looking at what we invested, it would be tragic if we stopped it."
Although Mrs Haddad has expanded from online into retail, retailers such as Just Kidding have done the opposite: launching an online baby store in 2009 to complement their two retail outlets in Dubai.
"At the time, there was a gap in the market and the online store would service the GCC region without the physical start-up costs of franchising across the region," says Annemarie Retera, a mother of two who is from Holland and founded the company in 2004 with her husband, Ben Boenk.
"There has been a definite increase in new sites, they are not direct competition for us as they do not have the product range which we carry.
"The physical store is naturally more successful because people will always want to touch, feel and see demonstrations on big-ticket items. But because we have the actual store, we can stock everything from strollers, car seats, high chairs, furniture and accessories and offer it all online - no one else is able to compete with our range."
With competition in this market at an all-time high, it begs the question who will survive in the long term.
"Yes, it's a lot cheaper to set up a website than a retail store, but it's not actually that big a market and I don't think we can all succeed," says Mrs Haddad. "You need a unique starting point."
But Blush and Bloom's Loretta Kiss, an Australian who launched her site in May this year because she felt there was too much emphasis on the baby and child and not enough on the pregnant mother, believes there is room for all the sites in the UAE.
"Competition is healthy for business as ultimately it ensures our customers have a wide selection of products that are fairly priced. It's the service and knowledge of these products that really makes a business stand out. Women are incredibly savvy shoppers and expect both good service and good staff knowledge regarding the products they are buying."
The Main Players
The UAE’s first online baby store, dubaibabies.com, abudhabibabies.com and saudibabies.com stock baby gifts and maternity, baby and toddler clothing and products. Delivery in the UAE costs Dh15 for orders less than Dh200 and is free for orders over Dh200
Selling products for pregnant mothers, newborns and children under five, bubsboutique.com offers organic high-end products. Delivery in the UAE costs Dh15 for orders less than Dh200 and is free for orders over Dh200
The largest shopping site in the Middle East, mumzworld.com is a one-stop shop for everything related to mother, baby and child. Delivery in the UAE costs Dh23 for orders less than Dh200 and is free for orders above Dh200
An online family store offering JustKidding’s full range of strollers, car seats, high chairs, furniture, toys and accessories for babies and young children. The online store delivers free in Dubai
Catering to newborns and children under three, 6ambabies.com offers organic clothing, toys and accessory brands. Delivery in the UAE costs from Dh20 depending on the weight of your purchase
Blush and Bloom
Primarily an online maternity boutique, blushandbloom.com stocks everything from maternity wear to pregnancy accessories to gifts and accessories for newborns. Delivery in the UAE costs Dh20 for orders less than Dh250 and is free for orders over that amount