UAE residents flock to Facebook to stretch their dirhams further

Online communities that curate wallet-friendly deals on groceries and leisure pursuits are witnessing a surge in memberships

Riyas Peedekaran and family. Courtesy Riyas Peedekaran
Powered by automated translation

With the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic taking its toll, many UAE residents are seeking to better regulate their spending and trim household budgets.

Several online communities have been awash with publicly generated advice, while Facebook pages curating some of the best deals on shopping and services have become essential resources during the most testing months of 2020.

The likes of Dirham Stretcher Dubai and Shop Well For Less (SWFL) have attracted huge memberships and offer regular threads detailing wallet-friendly deals on anything from weekly groceries to leisure pursuits.

For business development manager Mo Hussein, SWFL provided a lifeline just before the stay-at-home directives came into effect in March in what proved to be a crucial saving when his job ended.

“Before the UAE announced a complete lockdown, we were sent to work from home,” recalls the 28-year-old Egyptian.

“That’s when I realised I needed to fix my broken keyboard and speakers on my MacBook Air. It had broken letters, so I had to use a virtual keyboard and choose the letter on the screen; not the most efficient way to type proposals or send emails.”

With the world heading into lockdown and economic uncertainty in the air – and anticipating a repair price of about Dh1,000 in an official Apple store – Mr Hussein called on SWFL members for advice, posting a request for repair shop suggestions that would “not cost an arm and a leg”.

“A lot of people recommended places. I ended up going to Computer Plaza in Bur Dubai,” says Mr Hussein, who lives in Umm Suqeim in Dubai.

“I had my keyboard and my speakers changed for around Dh200…a massive bargain.”

It was an essential, cost-effective repair that allowed Mr Hussein to conduct Zoom meetings as his income shrank.

“I was let go a month after we were sent to work from home, so savings were a priority,” adds Mr Hussein, who has since been re-employed.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 28 JULY 2020. Mohamed Hussein is a member of a money-saving Facebook community and saved a fortune getting his laptop fixed just before lockdown. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) Journalist: david Dunn Section: National.
Mohamed Hussein is a member of Shop Well For Less, a money-saving Facebook community, and saved a fortune getting his laptop fixed based on recommendations from the group. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

Riyas Peedekaran was already keen to save money before Covid-19 impacted his technical services company.

With movement restrictions preventing customer visits and both residential and corporate clients expenditure-shy, the 35-year-old Indian’s “a dirham saved is a dirham earned” motto really kicked in.

“I always look for deals around the city…Dubai has lot of family-oriented activities that are either free or don’t cost much,” says Mr Peedekaran, who is based in Al Qusais.

As parents of a son, 6, and daughter, 5, Mr Peedekaran and his wife Roushana Koolikkad, 31, joined Dirham Stretcher last year “initially looking for weekend posts by admins about events around the city that are free or charge minimal [fees]”.

“Members who found deals started sharing in the group and the best part is the discount codes for DS members – the admins work hard to get these from big names to smaller family orientated businesses.”

Mr Peedekaran says this proved particularly helpful while doing online grocery shopping and when he needed a birthday dress for his daughter “from a well-known brand for a really low price”.

Stuart & Victoria Douglas of Chef2Chef
Stuart Douglas and his wife Victoria felt the power of community pages when they were able to pivot their firm Chef2Chef's business model to residential home delivery during the pandemic. Courtesy Chef2Chef

As a food service supply company to UAE hotels, catering firms, restaurants and overseas luxury resorts, Chef2Chef’s business stalled overnight when Covid-19 crippled the hospitality industry, strangled cash flow and threatened jobs.

But the firm, founded by Stuart Douglas in 2015, felt the power of SWFL and other community pages when he and wife Victoria were able to pivot their business model to residential home deliveries.

“Without the love and support from the community and this additional revenue stream, Chef2Chef would have closed,” says Mr Douglas.

“People really clicked with our story; a single-owned, SME family business, who kept their staff on 100 per cent salaries throughout.”

The Facebook community has been an unbelievable help during these times. It has come together to support SMEs

While revenue is still hugely down and debts from hospitality customers persist, is enabling the Briton to retain his warehouses, delivery fleet and staff while offering wholesale-priced food directly to consumers.

“The Facebook community has been an unbelievable help during these times. As a whole, it has really come together to support SMEs and will remain important,” says Mr Douglas, who isn’t confident that “normality” will return to the industry anytime soon.

“There are no tourists flocking into hotels yet, people at home are still not comfortable dining out, have learned how to cook much better and, most importantly, understand the cost of restaurant-quality food versus what they are paying in a restaurant.

“Too many people lost their jobs or had massive pay cuts, so dining out is a luxury massively reduced. The next few long summer months will really break many SMEs, which wait in hope for a good ‘high season' from October to February. The love and care of the community in our darkest days will never be forgotten.”

Debbie Steedman launched SWFL in 2018 with fellow British expat Colin Mackenzie. They’ve seen the 23,000-member community grow beyond a platform purely for sharing deals and promotions as more businesses shifted trading online.

“As we slowly come out of the pandemic, people are looking at their financial situations,” she says.

“Many have lost jobs and have to start to rebuild their lives. The ones who haven’t, I think, will be very wary about spending on non-essential items.”

Ms Steedman, an Al Barsha-based mum, adds: “As the country reopens its retail outlets, we will try our best to guide people to support our local economy. It’s essential now that we do this.”

Among the lesser-known Facebook communities are Abu Dhabi Dirham Savers and Money Saving Tips & Deals. The latter helps people tighten their belts by offering simple but effective advice such as unsubscribing from services no longer needed and borrowing books from public libraries rather than buying new ones.

The group also suggests packing lunches for work instead of buying sandwiches or dining out and making hot drinks rather than feeding coffee chain tills. Launched in May, the group’s mission is “to save and share money-saving tips and generate extra income”.

“Since there are no trees growing free cash, no dollar bills raining from the sky, most of us live in a world of budgets,” says Dubai-based Anish Rozani, an administrator for Money Saving Tips & Deals.

Dirham Stretcher admins Selma (left) and Susan. Courtesy Dirham Stretcher
Selma Abdelhamid (left) and Susan Syrek, administrators of the Dirham Stretcher Facebook Community, say their main role is to help members save money and support the local economy. Courtesy Dirham Stretcher

Dirham Stretcher launched in 2016. Now with 35,000 followers, it helps residents save on goods and services while promoting businesses offering often exclusive deals.

“We are specialised in discounts and helping people save money in everyday life, whether it's lowering your DEWA bill or finding promo codes for shopping online,” says Selma Abdelhamid, one of two administrators for the Dirham Stretcher Facebook community.

“We have been supporting small businesses all along. We allow them to post ads on Sundays, but with the beginning of the crisis, we started giving shoutouts to small businesses in need of exposure.

“In some cases, the business owners told us they could afford to pay salaries for one more month thanks to the group or they could avoid letting go of employees.”

We can sense many people have less money and are grateful for any leads on how to spend less

Ms Abdelhamid and fellow admin Susan Syrek manage an increasing number of discounts – currently more than 300 from small and larger companies – which they share with members, 8,500 of whom have joined since March.
"We can sense many people have less money and are grateful for any leads on how to spend less," says Ms Syrek. "DS has also helped many people navigate online shopping during the pandemic. Many had never ordered groceries online before the lockdown…had no idea what was available in the different online shops.

“The group has seen an increase in activity, especially regarding essentials – many people are trying to save on groceries and other everyday expenses. Our main role is to help our group members save money, but we believe we also play an important part in supporting the local economy.”

That suits Mr Peedekaran on two levels.

“I look at the group before spending on everything,” he adds. “I won’t be able to tell you how much I have saved [overall], but for sure the group has helped me stretch my dirham a lot.

“And as a business owner, DS allowed us to promote, which helped us get new clients. During this slowdown, it helps us a lot.”