From worktop to e-shop: the artisans of Dubai are going online

Does carefully creating a product from scratch, only to sell it online, diminish its appeal? The success of Etsy proved otherwise, and in its wake, a score of online boutiques are seeking to offer customers a breadth and authenticity of product not found in any mall

Berber rugs, handwoven into dense technicoloured knots, lie piled up on distressed wooden benches. Elsewhere, bamboo chairs carved into peacock shapes give life to a living room, and cobalt blue trays adorned with a Hamsa design overflow with silver trinkets.

These items are not part of a shop display; customers will never get to run their hands through the soft pile of a rug, or try out that bamboo chair for size. They are offerings from The People of Sand and Little Majlis, respectively; just two of the online boutiques in Dubai that are ensuring E-commerce doesn’t have to mean mass-produced.

The birth of the artisanal online marketplace arguably began with Etsy, conceived in Brooklyn in 2005 by Rob Kalin. The idealist and craftsman had dreams of an anarchist artist’s collective, a world economy governed by people rather than money, where artfulness is prized over efficiency.

Despite these socially-minded ambitions – or maybe because of them – the site exploded. What began with Kalin’s wooden-encased computers now comprises of 1.6 million sellers, 54 million members, and revenues of US$365m in 2016.

Big figures maybe, but the majority of successful sellers are not peddling big-ticket items. A Google search of Etsy’s most popular purchases perhaps validates its ‘Twee-bay’ moniker, with items such as a wishbone necklace, a golden pineapple wall print or a pair of bunny earrings atop the list.

In recent years accused of abandoning its independent artisanal roots, perhaps now is the chance for smaller online boutiques that haven’t hit Etsy’s lofty heights to make their mark.

“We were very aware of sites like Etsy and felt that was really missing in the UAE community. We wanted to create something that had a local flavour,” says Annabelle Fitzsimmons, co-founder of website Little Majlis.

“There were expats from all over the world, but no brands from this region: you had to rely on things like hearing about villa sales from word of mouth. It was underground, and not accessible.”

“The Dubai retail industry still misses the boutique style of the shopping experience. It doesn’t provide the style so loved by decoristas from around the world,” agrees Audrey Soler, founder of The People of Sand.

“It is a nice audience inside an already small potential market.”

Brand awareness is the key to business success. You can have the best product and brand but if no one knows about it, how can you be successful?

For small artisans looking to impact a crowded marketplace, the benefits are clear. A key one is not having to maintain a shopfront; a huge cost that can cripple a small business owner like Yentine Gootjes, a vintage clothing seller in Canada.

After taking her business to the streets of Ontario, she closed up shop after realising the majority of her customers were coming from Instagram. In a plea to her high street, she blogged: “If you want your neighbourhood to be interesting and walkable and varied, remember the little guys… your dollars have the power to shape your city.”

For Soler, the aim is to keep The People Of Sand specialised and online. Keeping her product line small and sourced exclusively from Morocco, the site will remain online to: “keep our prices low and to keep expanding to other markets outside UAE,” she explains.  

“We are not planning on opening bricks and mortar retail store for now and we don’t do pop-up events yet. Though we do partner with venues occasionally,” she adds.

Conversley both Little Majlis and Croutique, a spin-off of ExpatWoman that launched in 2004, espouse the benefits of physical retail. 

Little Majlis launched its own collection of branded gifts in 2014, allowing it to take part in market and pop-up events and have a presence in retail stores.

“Physical events are fantastic for brand awareness, allowing us to connect with the creative community that we promote, discover new brands and gather valuable and honest feedback directly from our customers,” says Fitzsimmons.

“We are great believers in online to offline being a key driver for all our businesses that we operate,” comments Tory Stewart-Wooler, Community Growth Manager at Croutique.

“Croutique is active at all our larger ExpatWoman events, offering information about the brand to newcomers and providing our sellers with the option of hosting their own stall to showcase their products. We work closely with our sellers to enable them to get the most out of the different channels open to them.”

“We don’t strive to be a huge multinational,” adds Caroline, a seller at Croutique. “But brand awareness is the key to business success. You can have the best product and brand but if no one knows about it, how can you be successful?”

For the makers, selling within the relative volume of a site like Croutique gives them the benefit of an external team and allows them to concentrate on their craft, rather than marketing or promotion. And ultimately, agree Wooler and Fitzsimmons, it is this craftsmanship that matters most to the UAE.

“The thing that makes these products special is that they are produced in small quantities and produced locally,” says Fitzsimmons.

“The arts and crafts scene in the UAE has come so far in the last 10 years. But there’s still room to help bring it out of the woodwork, and into the wider community.”