Six weeks ago Pavan Rajhpal was explaining the qualities of his personal care products and candles to visitors at Dubai’s Arte artisans market.
“Customers take home more than a bag full of products, there is consultation, finding out about skin or hair type, they get to know how to use the items,” says the founder of Pavanito.
A flight purser and in-flight supervisor by day, Mr Rajhpal, 49, launched his brand in 2013, having learnt in India during the global financial crisis the value of having a second income source to help support him, his mother and sister and his three adopted children.
“A lot of the downsizing and job losses made me realise it was nice to have an identity which was not always uniform bound, to have your own ground under your feet,” he says.
This diversified strategy has, however, been challenged by the devastating impact of Covid-19, having taken Mr Rajhpal both out of the air and off the pop-up shop scene as the UAE, like many countries around the world, observes movement restrictions to help contain the virus.
His sales to spas and Dubai and Abu Dhabi stores have also halted as non-essential retail ceased.
Like many market colleagues at Arte, Ripe and Shopping Soiree, Mr Rajhpal has now turned to online marketplaces for sales beyond customers using Pavanito’s own website.
“One of the issues we have is people have to smell, test or try before they commit to buying, so how does that work online?” says the International City-based vendor, who recently set up an Amazon account to sell his wares.
“But we have to find something online because that's the new language people speak or are forced to speak. We’ve had to adapt, apart from just selling on our website, because where will you bring traffic from?”
Measures to contain the virus in the UAE, including business and school closures, travel restrictions and stay-at-home directives, have prevented many events – such as the outdoor markets artisans use to sell their products – from operating.
Home businesses, such as Pavanito, can legally trade through the markets as vendors are covered by the trade licence of organisers during their events. However, to sell online from home, they require their own licence.
Two years ago Mr Rajhpal, who has his own licence, resisted trading his business through Souq.com (now Amazon owned) to protect his margins and brand profile.
“The pop-up scene was booming and I was careful where we placed products. Now we have said yes to Amazon partly because it has the footfall of the vast majority market,” says Mr Rajhpal.
Reham Mogawer, the founder of Order Out Of Chaos, which makes and sells home decor and stationery products, is also embracing several e-marketplaces. With markets cancelled, the Abu Dhabi artisan is selling via Flamingaroo, It’s her Way, Etsy and The Saffron Souk, which all cover her licence needs.
“Everyone has the time to look for new products online, which definitely gave us a push forward,” says Ms Mogawer, 30, a British-Egyptian mother of two daughters, who is also setting up an Amazon account.
“Customers are depending on online gifts and we have customised products which help with emotional connections versus social distancing. And I have more time to be more engaged online … all handmade business owners are pushing boundaries to keep their businesses going.”
Any income from Rare Find, a jewellery concept set up by mum Shireen McGurn, 50, goes straight into the “family pot” during the pandemic.
“It helps with our general expenses; food shops, school lunches, petrol, utility bills, car repair costs, supplies I need and family gifts,” she says. “The loss of sales since markets shut has been difficult, but we have been in difficult situations before and budget accordingly.”
Mrs McGurn, who has her own licence, designs and sells necklaces, bracelets, cards, signs and one-off art pieces.
“The thought of online sales was always scary as my products are handmade and I love hearing people’s reactions, watching their faces," she says. “The global crisis has made me put my brave hat on and create an online store; the alternative is doing nothing.”
Beside pursuing an online course in branding and sales, she has launched a shop with chat-based invoicing platform Zbooni. Zbooni's digital marketplace licence covers goods and services traded on its platform, meaning vendors don’t need a licence as long as they are below certain sales thresholds.
The Dubai start-up, which enables vendors to operate a shop as well as process customer payments, has seen a huge spike in sign-ups.
"We have on-boarded as many merchants in the last three weeks as we had in the previous year of operations,” says Zbooni's chief commercial officer Ashraf Atia.
“We have a wide range of businesses using our platform and services, from fitness studios doing Zoom classes, to restaurants doing curbside pickup, from lawyers practising tele-law, to psychologists offering online advice … basically any industry that could change its model to deliver online or over video conference."
Mr Atia says the company has also seen existing merchants pivoting to this model, such as children's karate classes being offered through distance learning.
“Our platform has allowed businesses to easily and quickly get online and start selling goods and services, while helping them adapt to the social distancing era,” he adds.
Among longer established players benefiting from an e-commerce lift is The Saffron Souk. It operates 400-plus vendor ‘shops’, with a queue of others waiting to join, says founder Shaan Qasim.
“We have seen a big increase in sales of a number of our products, including our children’s brands,” says Ms Qasim.
“We have also expedited the launch of some products that help people workout at home. We definitely see greater demand, not only for gifts but for products that keep both our clients and their children busy.”
The platform focuses on “hard-to-find” items, including fashion, gifts, jewellery and custom-made products, and Ms Qasim anticipates social restrictions prompting more would-be artisans becoming active as an income means.
“We have a blog that can inspire new ideas and perhaps encourage people to work on creative skills and put their talent into action. They are then able to present for the world to discover,” she says.
Martin Branston, a managing director of Flamingaroo, says the Dubai-based marketplace launched in December 2018 to save local artisans money usually spent renting craft market tables.
““E-commerce gives suppliers the ability to sell any time of day, whether the customer is sitting on their sofa during this current tragic outbreak or at their office desk,” he says.
Flamingaroo currently has about 200 UAE vendors, “making the best in personalised and handmade gifts”, and managing delivery through special rates negotiated with courier companies.
“Our platform is the ideal opportunity for them to continue to sell during this time,” adds Mr Branston.
New player Jokaka is due to launch in May.
“We have been developing the concept and platform for six months,” says general manager Khadija Najmi.
“We have not brought it forward in light of Covid-19 and we remain on track for our initial launch timeline, albeit with added challenges to the delivery team during these unprecedented times," says Ms Nahmi.
“It’s a great opportunity for home businesses that don't have their own website or technical know-how to have their own branded store with products listed online.”
With the likes of Arte – currently creating its own online shop offering – unable to predict when its physical markets will be up and running again, these virtual markets could prove crucial to artisan businesses like Pavanito for some time.
“Do we have a choice now with the (physical) sale channel being shut down? Clearly not,” says Mr Rajhpal, who rues the loss of brand bonding that face-to-face interaction brings.
“But there’s no flying happening, so my business is my bread, butter, my cheese, everything.”