Beaten by a club ... and still wanting more

Brad Reagan looks at the latest entries in the hottest new shopping trend - the private online shopping club.

illustration for page 2 of personal finance  September 25, 2010
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National

When I was back in the US recently, I mentioned to an old golfing buddy that I was in the market for a new set of golf clubs. He is part of the golf industrial complex, which specialises in convincing duffers like me that outdated equipment (and not a flawed swing or lack of athletic ability or approaching middle age) is the only thing between me and the PGA Tour. As such, I figured he might have a lead on the latest and greatest methods of shopping for golf gear.

Sure enough, last week he passed on an invitation to join The website is among the latest entries in the hottest new shopping trend - the private online shopping club. I'm generally on the same page with Groucho Marx, who famously said he refused to join any club that would have him as a member, but this seemed a good opportunity to see what I've been missing. It works like this: the site holds two to three "flash sales" each week, in which a retailer offers merchandise exclusively to the site's members at a steep discount. It claims the savings can be as much as 70 per cent, but with an important catch - the sales expire within 36 to 48 hours.

When I logged on after joining, the first sale was from King Cobra and the prices were indeed impressive. A set of irons, which were listed at $1,150 (Dh2,224), were on sale for $729. A cart bag that retails for $190 was selling for $97. Before I could pull the trigger, I found one big problem: the site does not ship overseas. It turns out the site is not alone in shunning international shoppers, as the pioneer in the field, New York-based Gilt Groupe, also will not ship items abroad (one notable exception is the Gilt offshoot called Jetsetter, which offers luxury vacation packages at a discount of about 30 to 50 per cent. The site accepts all international credit cards and its destinations run the gamut from Caribbean beach resorts to South African safaris, a spokeswoman said).

Undeterred, I tried to sign up for the UAE's entry into the club scene,, which is majority-owned by the same company, the Jabber Internet Group, that runs the popular The site, which launched in April, offers fashion and lifestyle merchandise from more than 400 brands, except membership is on an invitation-only basis. Since I do not run with the fashionista set, I have not been invited as of yet, but I was encouraged by the notice on the website that it has "select openings" each day for unsolicited members. So I put my name on the list.

As of this writing I have not been chosen. I remain outside the velvet rope looking in. The air of exclusivity is one of the big draws of these sites, and the business model would seem to be a natural fit in the UAE, where the population is generally affluent, tech-savvy and brand-conscious. Shopping is practically the national pastime. But the fact is that we are a nation of Luddites when it comes to online shopping. In a recent survey, it was revealed that one third of internet users in the UAE have never bought anything online. That is twice the global average.

When I read in this newspaper last week that Carrefour was launching an online shopping portal for the UAE, my first reaction was: "Wait, you mean Carrefour did not already have an e-commerce site here? How is that possible?" Fifteen years since the launch of, it was stunning that Carrefour, the world's second-largest retailer, did not have the web at the centre of its business model. But the delay actually says a lot more about shopping habits in the UAE than Carrefour's management decisions.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said this week that it was developing a policy for online payments, which should alleviate the security concerns some people have. I was surprised to learn that most online transactions are completed with cash on delivery. Just as significant, one expert not long ago was quoted as saying UAE residents enjoy the physical act of shopping so much - he called it "shoppertainment" - that we refuse to give it up in exchange for the convenience of the web.

That puts me in the minority, I guess. Given the choice of slogging my way through the mall or clicking around from the comfort of my couch, I choose the latter. The catch is that you do not get the tactile experience of shopping - trying on shoes to check the fit or swinging a golf club to see how it feels - a liability even more severe when you factor in that most of the online clubs do not offer returns.

But part of creating a limited membership is the assumption that the members are discerning shoppers with a refined sense of which brands and products that they like and those that they do not. That is also why "flash sales" work, as members are willing to pounce whenever a product they fancy is made available. To my surprise, I find I rather like the idea of participating in a targeted sale of items I might actually want to buy (a psychologist might note that my attraction may be related to the fact that some of these clubs do not seem to want me to belong).

My guess is that the business model will catch on in the Gulf sooner rather than later. In which case, I'll see you in the club.