Bringing Lebanon's fashion industry online

Lebanese fashion looks to online sales

Starting a business is never easy. But what are the challenges involved in setting up an online retailer in a country where internet speeds rank as some of the slowest in the world and where shoppers still prefer visiting bricks and mortar stores?

Technology of Business

Two years ago Louise Doumet was in New York.

A woman approached her and asked her where she had bought her top. The next day someone asked about her earrings.

The pieces were made by Lebanese designers and not available in the US.

This set Louise thinking - if there was interest, how could she create a business that would bring the best of Lebanese design to an international market?

"We started thinking that there might be a great interest in Lebanese designers on the international level," says Ms Doumet.

Shoppers in a Beirut boutique Customers often prefer to browse online but then visit retailers to try items on and purchase them

"A year later, we were online and two years later, here we are selling items to the US, to Russia, to the Middle East and, of course, to Lebanon."

The site is called Lebelik.com, which in Arabic means: "It suits you well."

First steps

Ecommerce in the country is still in the early stages, and consumers have yet to embrace online shopping in the same way they have in other countries.

In 2012, ecommerce sales grew to over $1 trillion worldwide, according to eMarketer. Of that the Middle East and Africa as a whole accounted for only 1.9% of the total.

Lebelik.com The Lebelik.com website is optimised to cope with slow internet speeds

Another problem start-ups in Lebanon are faced with is painfully slow connections speeds.

"We manage to work around it," she says.

"We've always known that it was slow, so we can't actually blame anyone. But then we tried to upload the pictures on the website in a way that makes it very easy for people to download, so actually the download time on the website is not that long. So people don't feel it is slow."

The site features pieces from 24 designers. When a piece is sold, the company takes a percentage of the sale. Rather than hold stock in a central warehouse, items are picked up from the designer, packed in a branded box and then shipped.

Leather goods shop in Beirut Design sensibilities: Lebanon's designers sometimes struggle to get their goods to the international market

"It might not sound very efficient to go and pick up every item from every address, but Lebanon is small and Beirut is small," says Ms Doumet.

"Buying online habits are not very well engraved in people's minds and industry, but I think it will pick up, and I think it is coming.

"Once people have changed their habits, when people are more used to buying online, then yes definitely it is a very viable business in my opinion."

The site now sells several pieces a day. But many customers use the site to browse and then visit the shops in person to try on and buy. Ms Doumet does not see this as a bad thing.

"Now from the outside, it could be seen as 'I wish this didn't happen' or 'It is a bad thing', but I think in the longer term it could be beneficial for both us and the designers."

Some of their best customers, she says, are expat Lebanese me buying gifts for wives, girlfriends and family still living in the country.

"I just find it touching and charming every time a man sends a gift with a small note - interesting, charming and profitable."

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