A year after launching, this contemporary shop remains the only online store of its kind in the UAE.
Filini.com fills the need for funky, innovative products
The products on Filini.com fall firmly into the category of "things you didn't know you needed until you saw them". Blow-up sofas in the shape of the traditional Chesterfield, oversized thrones, lit-up plant pots, designer radios and CD players, inflatable bars and some of the most versatile bean bags on the planet all vie for space in this innovative web shop.
Filini.com is the brainchild of the Dutch duo Claudia van der Werf and Michiel Schröeder, who seven years ago left successful careers in the hospitality industry to launch Desert River, a Dubai-based wholesaler of European design products. "We both worked for five-star hotel companies and have an interest in high-quality service and design products," Claudia explains. "We recognised that there was a need for funky, innovative, contemporary products in this region."
The first brand to be incorporated into the portfolio was Fatboy and, in the UAE at least, Desert River can be credited with converting the bean bag brand into a household name. "Five or six years ago people would say, 'It's just a bean bag'," Claudia says, "but it's such a beautiful brand and people love the name. It's such a fun product."
A host of other European brands followed, including Slide, Blofield, Bloom, Design of Love and Moonlight. Parallel to this, Claudia and Michiel launched an events rental business, so any of their products can be hired out for any length of time. Then, in the first quarter of 2010, they unveiled Filini.com, an online shop that presents the region's design lovers with greater access to the duo's carefully selected collective of brands.
An online presence offers countless benefits, Claudia points out. Because the company is dealing directly with the end user, it can offer more competitive prices and a wider range of products. Customers can compare prices and read buyer reviews online before they commit to a product, and the payment process is simple and straightforward.
These pros probably don't need to be spelt out to a generation that is fluent in iTunes, Amazon and eBay. And yet, Filini.com is still the only online store dedicated to contemporary design products in the UAE, and one of few such companies in the region. Why such a dearth, one wonders?
"I think what's daunting for an online start-up is the number of shopping malls in this part of the world. People think: 'How can I compete with Dubai Mall or Mall of the Emirates?' But not everyone wants to spend their weekends in a mall. Also, with an online shop, you have to have the stock because you need to deliver it straight away. So it's a big upfront investment."
There are also challenges with online payment systems, which remain in their infancy in this part of the world. And, most importantly, online start-ups in this region have to deal with a consumer base that is not yet entirely at ease with the idea of shopping online.
"In a way, it was difficult when we launched in that the trend was not there in terms of buying online. In Europe and the US, this is a billion-dollar industry, but people here are only just getting used to it."
It all boils down to trust, says Claudia. "People are simply not accustomed to using their credit card online, and if they buy something from overseas, there's always the worry that it will never arrive. But now there's a local company that has an address and premises in Dubai, and people feel much more comfortable with that. We're an existing company and have been here for seven years, so there's a comfort level in knowing that you are doing business with a trusted party. That's the important thing when you are working online - that people can see who's behind that website."
And for those that are still uncomfortable with the prospect, the company has a showroom in Al Quoz where a range of products are on display - although they still have to be purchased online. Products are delivered within 24 hours in the UAE and in three to five days elsewhere in the GCC.
Filini.com currently carries 20 brands and tries to introduce a new one each month. These include Alessi, with its quirky kitchenware; Color Industry, which offers vibrant cushions, wall stickers and storage solutions; Innermost, a supplier of intriguing lighting objects and accessories, and Freek, a producer of colourful outdoor carpets, to name but a few. All of the products are contemporary and slightly off the wall, a far cry from the "traditional, gilded, red velvet type of furniture" that we are used to seeing in this part of the world, says Claudia.
Claudia and Michiel visit design exhibitions in London and Paris every year, and are constantly on the lookout for fun, funky, unusual products to add to the Filini portfolio. "But we are very careful about choosing," Claudia says. "For us it is not about having 10,000 products. It is more about having a nice selection of things."
The company also makes a point of only supplying originals. "We don't do fakes and we don't do copies. And you can't mix them, either; you have to choose one or the other. In this region, where there are a lot of fakes available, we have chosen to only work with the original. That gives our customers the assurance that their product meets the specifications that it says it does."
Filini.com was launched in the midst of an economic slowdown, in a market where online shopping is not yet the norm. That must have taken some guts. "If you get on the train now, you can find a space in the first carriage," Claudia retorts. "You have to get on board to get a seat."