x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Retail therapy is on pause at the mall

Online retail therapy is a solution to so many of life's problems - so why don't Arabs do it more?

Retail therapy is a woman's solution to all first world problems, or so I'm told. But every time I step into a shopping mall I experience a modern-woman failure: the inability to shop.

This week, on a rare excursion to the mall, squeezed in between two jobs and full-time mummyhood, I failed to experience the promised euphoria of shopper's paradise.

Instead, I wandered aimlessly from shop to shop, looking at all the items with a vague lack of interest, and failed to purchase anything over the period of two hours.

There were plenty of things I needed, plenty I wanted too, and yet I couldn't focus on the items, felt unwilling to pull my purse out of my handbag and queue at the till. Worse, I remained unconvinced that I couldn't find the same thing better and cheaper online.

I've become a master of online shopping. Gone for me is the idea of browsing stores as a form of pleasure, or a communal and social activity.

I suspect I'm not alone. Recent figures on e-commerce in the Middle East estimate its worth at $11bn, with only 22 per cent internet penetration in the Arab world. But it's a mere drop compared to Europe's €246bn (Dh1.18tn), with users spending on average €1,000 (Dh4,800) each per year.

The "Arab Digital Generation" (ADG) who make up 40% of the MENA population have untapped potential. And yet 72 per cent of GCC respondents rarely or never buy online.

I'm baffled: online shopping is the most liberating shopping experience you can have.

Online, I can specify exactly what I'm looking for, and everything in the store that meets my requirements is displayed in an instant. Every product has a review, so I can be sure I've picked the right one. I choose things I would overlook in person, or would never find in a large store. It's made me a better shopper.

I do my weekly grocery shopping in 15 minutes, at night, as my baby sleeps. I sit tucked up in my pyjamas tapping away at my iPad choosing fresh fruit and bakery goods. And if I like, it arrives by 7am the next morning, all bagged up, right into my kitchen. What is not to love?

You might think it's sad that I no longer see shopping as social, but I feel the opposite. Instead of drifting apart from my friends waving across a sea of clothing rails and cut price sale items, we can sit down and talk properly.

There are downsides: things aren't always as they appear on screen. And returning unwanted items is always an annoying chore.

Despite being an online aficionado, I like quirky shops and markets, but only when I have the leisure to browse for entertainment, education, tourism even.

It's a cultural excursion for me, talking to people, looking at items thrown together in nonsensical fashions in markets, born of their creators' imagination. The haggling is fun (although only if I have time to spare). It is the surprise that makes the difference.

But for day-to-day life, when I need a new dress for work, when baby needs new shoes, when the fridge needs restocking, I'm grateful I don't have to waste hours traipsing around stores uncertain if what I need is out there.

The internet has everything, fast, to an exact specification not always available on the high street, and at a good price. I don't even have to step outside my front door if I don't want to. Online shopping: How did I ever live without it?

 

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk