The Life: Mona Ataya, the founder of online mother and baby store Mumzworld, describes the first company's first "whirlwind" year and dispels the myth that e-commerce won't take off in the UAE.
Online shopping comes of age, as UAE kids’ site clicks with parents
It's late afternoon in the Dubai office of Mumzworld and the phones are ringing off the hooks. Toys and books are stacked by desks.
"This is a crazy time of year for us," says the Mumzworld founder and chief executive Mona Ataya, referring to the run-up to Christmas.
Last year, the company underestimated holiday season demand and ran out of bestselling toys before Christmas. It's a mistake she won't make again.
"It was a bit of a sad thing," she recalls. "By the 20th of December, all the hot sellers were out of stock. We kind of needed to pre-empt it this year."
Her orders for what are predicted to be this year's bestsellers were placed well in advance.
Ms Ataya launched Mumzworld in October last year with an English-language website selling 15,000 products. She added an Arabic version of the site in February and the catalogue has ballooned to 60,000 items.
"The objective for us is to have the biggest catalogue in the region, so as a consumer you don't need to go anywhere else," Ms Ataya says. "Pretty much everything you can find [locally] in a toy store or in a big shop you can find on our website."
Prices are also 10 per cent to 15 per cent lower than in UAE stores, she says.
The company is now focusing on having merchandise that cannot be found locally.
"We are moving more and more to having bestsellers and exclusive products that no one else has," says Ms Ataya. "About 30 per cent of our range is exclusive to us and this will continue to grow."
It is often said that e-commerce is not suited to the UAE, given the abundance of malls and the rudimentary postal system.
Not so, says Ms Ataya, arguing that deliveries are "actually not as difficult as you would expect".
Once an order has been received, Mumzworld arranges a delivery time via email. Then a customer service representative calls for precise directions.
"We need the instructions only once and that's a two-minute conversation," she says. "We never have to call again [and] we have so many repeat customers."
She also debunks the notion of the UAE's mall culture, arguing that while people may visit malls to hang out or to have lunch at weekends, purchasing decisions - especially those made by new mothers - are not made there.
Rather, those crucial decisions are made online, where would-be buyers can search the internet for reviews, recommendations and advice. Mothers do not want to risk walking into a shop where assistance and choice may be limited.
"We want to give the mother the choice, so what I have on my website is the entire catalogue" of each company, says Ms Ataya. "So as a mother, I can click, click, click on my price range and compare and make that decision. In the store, I am limited."
Ms Ataya started her career, straight after college, in marketing at Procter & Gamble.
"They say you come full circle," she notes with bemusement. "My first brands were baby brands. I got a crash course as a 20 year old, when I started learning all about the psychographics of the mother - why she buys, why she doesn't."
From there, she went to Johnson & Johnson. In 2000, she got a call from the now chief executive of Bayt asking if she wanted to join a start-up he predicted would revolutionise recruitment in the region. Despite the fact the internet bubble had just burst, she jumped on a plane to Dubai and traded her fancy office for sitting on the floor and working around the clock seven days a week. It was a gamble that paid off, with Bayt becoming successful within a year.
It was becoming a mother herself - she has three sons - that prompted Ms Ataya to start Mumzworld.
"I recognised very real, missing needs," she says. "The need for convenience, for choice, for empowerment. I constantly felt that I wasn't empowered, that I was shortchanging my children, that I was compromising."
But back to the present. What does this mum predict are going to be this year's top Christmas toys?
"One of the more popular ones is Furby. The other hot one is a Lego range that's unique to Christmas: it's a Lego family game. And one of the big sellers last year was Christmas clothes for girls."
Regardless of the time of year, Emiratis love the dresses, too.
"Emiratis are among our biggest customers," says Ms Ataya. "They go [to the site] and order volumes."