A look at which online shops deliver the goods

In our look at UAE-based internet retailers, we found one rival to Amazon, one cheap up-and-comer and one unsafe bet.

Kedar Iyer shops online once a month, buying T-shirts from threadless.com or books at amazon.com. The Dubai resident says he chooses websites over brick-and-mortar establishments because it eliminates the annoyance of physically roaming from store to store. He also avoids the overeager sales staff keen on making a sale. "It takes away the hassle of dealing with anyone around, and me having to explain my preferences," says Mr Iyer, who spends between US$100 (Dh367) and $200 per month online. "I can be left to my own decision, and make may way to the right thing I'm looking for. Also, I don't want anyone peering over my shoulder seeing what I want to buy."

But Mr Iyer, who works in advertising, does not shop on UAE-based sites. The lack of clarity about the shipping process deterred him, he says. In other words, it wasn't clear how long the products would take to reach his door. "I need to know when I will get something, and if I have an issue, whom can I call, and how to track it," he explains. "I don't want to buy something and have to chase it to have it delivered."

There are a growing number of local internet retail entrepreneurs who are hoping they can change perceptions like Mr Iyer's. Nahel.com and Alshop.com are just two UAE-based shopping websites that have popped up in the last few years. In a country where everything from clothing to a burger combo can be ordered by phone and delivered to your door, taking that convenience online seems like a natural move. Add to that the fact that the UAE has the highest internet penetration in the Arab world, and conditions seem ripe for a local Amazon. com-type site to thrive.

But the idea hasn't clicked with UAE consumers as fast as one would think. Old habits die hard. According to local retailers and analysts, regional shoppers still like using cash, and remain concerned about security when using their credit cards online. Meanwhile, Amazon.com, eBay and other e-commerce sites use well-known payment systems, such as PayPal, and have been on the online retail scene long enough to establish a reliable reputation. By contrast, the bulk of orders placed online from UAE sites must be paid in cash upon delivery.

Overall, the UAE's local sites are relatively new to the market, and for the most part, unknown. With these factors in mind, I decided to put a few of these sites to the test. I placed a small order with three UAE-based retail websites: Alshop.com, Nahel.com and Ellamart.com. My goal was to order something with a price tag of less than Dh100 and see how easy, or difficult, it was for my purchase to reach my Dubai Marina flat in a timely fashion.

I decided to try Ellamart.com first because it has a wide selection of goods - everything from computers and magazines to home spa treatments - and has been on the virtual retail scene since 2006. But once I started, just navigating the site to choose something to buy left me a bit wary. As I clicked on links, warnings would pop up stating that the site's security certificate could not be verified.

"You may be connecting to a website that is pretending to be "ellamart.com," it warned. I ignored the reminder, but most shoppers would likely switch to another site at the first sign of lax security. After perusing its virtual shelves, I decided to buy a cookbook called Fitness Food, which had a Dh98 price tag. I went to "checkout" and was immediately put off by the total cost: Ellamart.com was charging a Dh200 delivery fee, double the cost of the item I was ordering. There was also no specific timeline for delivery.

I abandoned the transaction and switched to Nahel.com. This relatively new retail website - it launched in August 2008 - sells a wide variety of goods, including shoes, computers and health and beauty products. I decided to buy a blue silicone sleeve made by Belkin for my iPod. I placed the order online, but it would be paid by cash on delivery. The total cost was Dh62, plus a Dh10 delivery charge - a far more reasonable proposition than the first website.

But a few days later, I got a call from one of Nahel.com's customer service agents, who told me their supplier did not have the item in stock. She said she would continue to check on the status. About a week later, I hadn't received any updates, so I emailed Nahel's customer service department with my order details, asking for clarification. The next day I received a phone call from the same customer service agent explaining that she checked with the supplier again and the item had still not arrived.

She also sent an e-mail that day apologising for the delay, and emphasised that they had been in constant contact with the supplier asking for the sleeve I ordered. And one day later, the customer service agent called with good news: my iPod accessory was in the building, and would be shipped to my flat via Aramex. It was finally en route, but more than two weeks after I placed the order. Saeid Hejazi, the managing director of Nahel.com, said some of the company's items are ordered through suppliers, rather than kept in stock in their warehouses. Therefore, orders can sometimes be subject to supplier delays.

Customer service is a "top priority", and Nahel.com is in the process of switching suppliers for the line of products from which I ordered, he said. "We're just going to drop all their products until we find a replacement," he said. "This will definitely be taken care of and I do apologise - it is unacceptable." I also ordered from Alshop.com, another Dubai-based site, which was launched in April 2009. After browsing its extensive portfolio of electronics products, I selected a SanDisk Cruzer Micro Skin USB Flash Drive for Dh29. Within hours of placing the order I received a call from a friendly Alshop.com employee, who wanted to verify my order.

A couple of days later, the same representative called to inform me that the drive was not available in the colour I originally chose, black, but that a white one was in stock. I agreed to the switch. She said that all orders are usually delivered within three days. Mine was delivered in two, and after 7pm, as I had requested. At 7:30pm on the day of delivery the driver called to let me know he was on his way. He arrived at my door a half-hour later with my merchandise and a wireless credit card machine. What he did next really surprised me: he offered me information on how to use the device I had purchased, and told me all about its benefits. The entire process was smooth, and the staff were helpful.

And despite the low-double digit price tag and miniature size of my order, Alshop.com delivered it to my door without charge. Sheriff Rizwan, the chief executive of the company, said they have been launching the site quietly to ensure they could execute every order efficiently, even in the site's early days. "We don't want to be too loud and axing our own feet if we get a huge volume that we are not able to fulfil," he said.

After testing all of the websites, the safety and security of my personal information and data was not an issue, as all of the orders I placed were paid with cash or credit on delivery, and I lost no money due to cancelled orders. These UAE-based websites still have some kinks to iron out, but efforts were made in the end to compensate for the problems I experienced. But overall, Alshop.com went above and beyond, and in my view this online retailer represents the potential for e-commerce in the Emirates.

Perhaps in the future, when considering buying something from a UAE-based website I will use Mr Iyer's approach - test its service with a small amount you don't mind losing. "The first time I use any of these sites, it is a small-value purchase," he said. "I will see if it is all right and does come. Once that purchase is sorted, and delivered on time, then we're good." aligaya@thenational.ae