As online shopping gains momentum in Oman, thanks to attractive promotional campaigns and enviable delivery mechanisms that tempt shopaholics eschew traditional walk-in stores, T A Ameerudheen tracks some of the niche online web portals where thousands of customers enjoy hassle-free, virtual shopping.
For many shopaholics in Oman, traditional stores do not excite anymore. For them, venturing out to malls has become a tedious exercise. They hate wasting precious time searching for a particular product. Instead, they would like to find it in the virtual world, which is just a mouse click or tab tap away! Online shopping has become the latest fad among the educated, technology-savvy young population, who are hooked to latest mobile and computing devices and immerse themselves in social media outlets or scout for attractive promotional offers from various e-commerce portals.
It is not just about saving time and money. The advantages are plenty. Portals offer huge discounts than the traditional market, deliver goods at your doorsteps at your convenient time and take the product back if it does not meet your expectations.
They inform customers about the product, its specifications, date of manufacture and country of origin. Little wonder, then, that a large number of people lapped up the online shopping opportunity, eschewing traditional walk-in stores, to buy niche products from the limited options available. It is, indeed, a piece of good news for the entrepreneurs who sowed the seeds of an e-commerce revolution in Oman a couple of years ago - muscat360.com, which sells bedroom and garden furniture; alatoolmuscat.com, which offers best deals for registered customers from vendors; gatheringsoman.com, which organises birthday parties, and muscatmobiles.com, which delivers latest mobiles at customers' doorsteps. And all of them believe online shopping has a huge potential in the Sultanate.
Setting up a business venture was a dream Dr Badar Barwani nurtured ever since he decided to come back to Oman after working in an international oil company in the United States. He wanted to launch a restaurant or a consultancy firm, but he set aside his plans due to the sky-rocketing rentals in prime business locations in Muscat. From then on, he shifted his focus to set up an online shopping portal, which had caught his fancy during his days in California.
He discussed his business plan with some of his friends and relatives, but no one encouraged him. But Barwani decided to go ahead with it. Plenty of market study and researches followed and, at last, he decided to sell furniture products. Customers always find it difficult to get their dream products even in established stores. With an aim to cater to their needs, Muscat360.com was launched officially in August 2011.
Into its second year, the e-commerce portal has cultivated hundreds of trusted clients. "Save time, save money is the unique selling proposition of muscat360.com. We source products directly from the market. Mediators are not involved in the business. So we deliver high quality stuff at best rates," Dr Badar Barawi explained the reasons for his venture's success.
"We invite customers to check products and specifications from our website. Moreover, we ensure delivery within two days as we have our own warehouse. Payment can be made at the time of delivery (either by cash or check). They can also deposit money in our account. We will launch an online payment facility soon," Barwani said.
At present, muscat360.com sells bedroom furniture, garden furniture, sofa sets, garments, art works and Arabic calligraphy besides renting out furniture for private functions. "Our business strategy is simple. We give top priority for the customers. If the customer doesn't like our product, we take it back immediately. We do not ask any questions. Our aim is to satisfy customers."
The portal is still in the first phase of operation and it plans to widen the network in the next phase. And he is in talks with potential investors to raise funds for it. "We will set up our own distribution network in Phase-2. It will help us deliver products in all parts of Oman. It is invariably a brand-building exercise."
Barwani, who is an avid sports enthusiast (he was national swimmer and undertakes challenging cycling expeditions), believes online shopping will boom in the years to come. "The demography reveals that most of the people below 30 are gadget freaks in Oman. They use mobile phones and computing devices. So online shopping has a huge potential here. That Muscat360.com has more than 60,000 visitors in just two years, without much publicity, shows the huge opportunity that lies ahead," he added.
All for birthday parties
It was in 2009 that Insaaf Fifi Al Marhuby and Margarita Miranda realised the difficulty in buying birthday party items in Muscat. "As mothers, we experienced the difficulty in putting things together for birthday parties. Options were very limited in Muscat at that time. And it prompted us to think about a business plan. And it resulted in gatheringsoman.com," Al Marhuby explained the reasons for setting up Oman's first party website.
Over the last four years, gatheringsoman.com has become Oman's most-preferred website for those looking for hassle-free birthday parties. It provides all materials for parties. They also bring expert face painters and magicians. "We organise the entire birthday party for our customers. We have high quality staff and our uniqueness lies in the fact that we do not outsource the work. Everything is owned by Gatheringsoman.com," she said.
The duo opened the online shop as they wanted to reduce the operation costs. However, the volume of online sale was very low in the first two years. "Initially,we got party orders, but very few people bought our services online. But the situation has changed now. Online sales have gathered momentum in the last two years," she said.
Young entrepreneur Moosa Al Balushi has an uncanny knack to analyse the latest trends in the market. And it was in 2011 that he felt the absence of an exclusive shopping portal for mobile phones in the Sultanate.
"It gave me a huge surprise. But I wanted to fill the vacuum. I began working on the project with the help of my friends. Thus muscatmobiles.com was born," Al Balushi took a trip down the memory lane.
A simple, but elegant website was soon launched, and it immediately became a big hit in the market.
People found it easy to order phones sitting in the cool confines of their homes and offices.
"Many of our customers were fascinated by our door delivery system. The customers have to give us some details online and we deliver the phone in 24 hours. It is as simple as that," he said.
The website offers best possible deals for the customers, and Moosa believes the business will increase in the future.
"We offer best deals for our customers. We sold 500 pieces of mobile phones through online so far. We even get orders from Sohar and Salalah. It is a testimony to our reach in the market," he added.
When Jessica, Mukund and Sandeep joined hands to build a unique online deal website in 2011, they were quite skeptical about the reaction from the market. But the threesome remained focused, spent many sleepless nights and worked tirelessly to launch their dream project, alatoolmuscat.com.
The site offers best deals from different vendors for its registered users. Each deal is featured on alatoolmuscat.com for a limited period. E-mail alerts are sent to all subscribers urging them to grab the deal. The site also allows the users to refer deals to friends. The site went live in February 2012 with the first sale (soft launch was in September 2011), and it caught the imagination of online users.
"Now we have more than 40,0000 subscribers. Everyday, we get 50 to 60 new subscribers. We have 17,000 fans on Facebook and we add 30 to 50 fans everyday. We are very proud of our fans. They help us a lot by giving their feedback on various deals," Jessica Asher, Director (Business Development), Alatool Muscat, said.
It is not just the uniqueness of the website that drives huge traffic. The offers are really tempting. Alatool Muscat offers more than 50 percent discount on all products and services featured in it. And the best thing is that it gives equal opportunity for all business ventures associating with it. "We give equal preference for RO 1 deals as well as RO 100 deals. Marketing campaigns and media strategies remain the same. We want to give best deals for the customers."
Jessica believes the huge price discount is a major factor that makes Alatool Muscat the leading e-commerce portal. "Of course, huge price discount is the 'wow' factor. Muscat is very price sensitive market. We have gained the confidence of our customers with in a short span of time."
At present, Alatool Muscat has around 350 vendors on its roster. And the Quality Analysts check the products and services that are featured on the portal. "We ensure quality of the products and services. Besides, we gather feedback from our customers," she said.
Enthused by the success of Alatool Muscat, the young entrepreneurs are planning to launch Ezaars.com in the Sultanate soon. "Ezaars.com is an online shopping mall, where customers can buy products and services. Anyone can put up a shop at Ezaars.com. It is a one-stop-shop for everything," she added.
Online shopping is the future