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Lebanese shoppers log on to e-commerce
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Lebanese shoppers log on to e-commerce

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Despite the country’s notoriously slow and insecure Internet, businesses in Lebanon have begun to tap into a demand for online shopping, fueled by social media networking and a newfound consumer …

Despite the country’s notoriously slow and insecure Internet, businesses in Lebanon have begun to tap into a demand for online shopping, fueled by social media networking and a newfound consumer confidence in the safety of credit card purchasing.

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  • 1. FRIDAY, 21 OCT 2011 WEATHER BLOM INDEX 01:26 PM Beirut time Beirut 1,218.3 27 °C News Business Opinion Sports Culture Technology Entertainment Lebanon | International | Middle East | Analysis Advanced Search LebanonLebanese shoppers log on to e-commerceSeptember 28, 2011 01:57 AMBy Brooke AndersonThe Daily StarA prospective online shopper peruses through a catalogue of watches offered on a website. (Azakir/The Daily Star)BEIRUT: Despite the country’s notoriously slow and insecure Internet, businesses in Lebanon have begun to tap into a demand for onlineshopping, fueled by social media networking and a newfound consumer confidence in the safety of credit card purchasing.“We saw the wave, and we decided to ride it at the right moment,” says Haytham El-Khoja, the co-founder of Mizalla, a Lebanese websiteset up two months ago that advertises itself as the region’s first online mall.While well-established international companies have been available in the country for some time, local businesses have remained wary ofbranching into the market, perhaps put off by consumers’ mistrust of online credit card security, the country’s poor Internet and itslackadaisical approach to formal addresses.This has begun to change in the past couple of years with some Lebanese companies, including florist Exotica and sweet shop Hallab,establishing websites alongside their physical stores. Companies have adapted to the local market, with many that deliver in Lebanon,including Mizalla, offering payment on delivery, removing people’s key fear of online purchasing.Nonetheless, Khoja reckons that the MENA region is still playing catching up on the e-commerce front, lagging about five years behind theU.S.He believes that the rise in the popularity of social media, propelled by the social uprisings across the region, has helped shift attentiononline.“What helped us was that at the beginning of the Arab Spring everyone was on Twitter and Facebook. Before, people would always say thatonline was the future. But then we realized it was now,” he says.“There is definitely a lot of potential for e-commerce in our region, coupled with the symbiosis that social media and online marketing canbring to the table,” says Darine Sabbagh, marketing manager at software developer Integrated Digital Systems in Beirut.She believes e-commerce has a lot more potential in the country. “Beyond the possibility for retailers who sell physical goods to go onlineand open online outlets, these is a huge need for service retailers online,” she says, “from delivery services to shopping services, beautyservices, online consultancy, video-on-demand and many, many others.” 1 of 2
  • 2. For Mizalla, an online “shopping mall” which sells products from local stores, e-commerce is likely to grow as the buzz around it increases.Khoja says that prior to their company’s launching two months ago, while a computer programmer in Saudi Arabia, he went online topromote his and other similar businesses through blogs with the idea that this would create discussions about the market.“I always liked websites that build a community around them,” he says at his small office in the residential neighborhood of Mar Elias, wherehe and his colleagues now promote and sell 60 different brands from 20 stores through the Mizalla.com website, currently focusing onelectrical goods, but with plans to branch out into fashion and beauty. “I created a community and I listened to their needs. I also bloggedabout our competitors. I said: you can also buy from these websites. I knew that being alone and jealous would harm us.”So far, the strategy has worked. As an increasing number of consumers became confident about their online security, the more they aregetting into the habit of buying online on a regular basis.According to a recent survey by group-buying website GoNabit, consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with making onlinepurchases in the Middle East.Ninety-three percent of respondents said they had a positive view of e-commerce, despite known and perceived security problems andtwo-thirds said that if it is cheaper to buy online they would do so more often.Indeed this is evidenced in the growing popularity of GoNabit and other group- FACT BOXbuying websites, via which consumers can get substantial discounts on productsprovided by local businesses on deals that last around 48 hours. Lebanon now has Largest Markets:several of these websites, including Groupon, Cobone and GoNabit, operating in 1. The UK has the largest e-commerce market in the world,the country. per capitaAn increasing level of trust and convenience are the two main factors that are 2. China has the biggest e-commerce market among emergingbringing about more business. The new sites are doing the work of the businesses markets, with over $36 billion in sales in 2009and the consumers: promoting products, making deliveries and transactions Some pure-click companies founded in the Middle East:without requiring their customers’ full credit card information. 1. GoNabit.com“The online word of mouth fuels local services and people are less worried about 2. Mizalla.comusing their credit cards to make online purchases,” says Ayman Itani, aBeirut-based social media consultant who has helped several local online 3. Marka VIP.combusinesses launch their services. 4. Dia-boutique.com“Banks in Lebanon have played an important role in helping with the security of Some brick-and-click companies in Lebanon:online purchases,” he adds, “and they are playing a bigger role in raising 1. Exotica (flowers)awareness of online purchasing when people open their accounts.” 2. M2 (Multimedia Megastore)And once people get into the habit of online purchasing, they often find better 3. Hallab (sweets)deals than they would at physical stores. Source: The Daily Star and WikipediaSome economists have suggested that e-commerce could help curb inflation, withintense price competition and with the ability of customers to have at-hand information on various deals online, the most popular examplebeing eBay, the consumer-to-consumer auction website, established in 1995.Today, many online retail start-ups are following a similar model – giving consumers the power to buy at lowest bargains based on theavailability of the products.MarkaVIP.com is one example of a local company that has done this. An exclusive online shopping club, it runs “flash sales,” working on theforces of time and product urgency and scarcity, selling excess inventory of high-end brands at much lower prices than would normally beavailable. The pure click company was founded in Jordan by former eBay employee Ahmed Alkhatib, and has since expanded offices intothe GCC and, in January 2011, Lebanon.As the largest and fastest-growing online shopping company in the region, Alkhatib says they have “just scratched the surface.” Although hedidn’t expect the growth to be so fast, he predicts that by 2015, MarkaVIP “will easily become a $500 million business.”E-commerce, although nascent in the Middle East, is proving to be a cost-effective and viable business, starting as a niche market twoyears ago to become an increasingly normal way of doing business.“On the technology end we are seeing increased demand from customers for developing e-commerce websites in Lebanon,” saysSabbagh, the IDS marketing manager. Still, she warns that “before venturing into that world, businesses should understand that their onlineoutlets need as much consideration and research in design and development as their physical outlets as consumers have high expectationswhen comparing them to their international and multinational counterparts.”A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 28, 2011, on page 4. 2 of 2

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