Gifts you won't find in the malls: New websites help UAE shoppers support home-grown businesses

Not in the Mall and Tied Up With String bring together a range of products created by local artisans, artists and designers

Beach bags with colourful pompoms, handcrafted jewellery with atypical motifs, wooden dolls and quirky cushion covers. When it comes to gifts, Aileen and Oliver Evans favour home-grown brands that make meaningful presents for their loved ones. However, they often struggled to locate what they needed in a convenient and timely fashion, so they set about creating their own online marketplace for local UAE vendors.

Find vendors who are 'Not in the Malls'

One year on, on November 6, NotInTheMalls.net went live, bringing together many of the couple's favourite independent brands, and making it simpler for others to acquire niche items.

"We would always look first to local businesses to buy products or gifts for ourselves or others," says Aileen, 36, who is from Northern Ireland.

"We found an abundance of small businesses in Dubai that create beautiful items. However, sourcing these can be difficult, with us finding them [by chance] through word of mouth, social media or by attending markets."

There wasn't one cohesive platform offering wares from a range of independent vendors. Plus, most local events, such as ARTE, The Makers' Market and Ripe Market, often happen once a week, on a Friday, which the Evanses usually dedicate as a family day for other activities with their son, 5, and daughter, 2.

As someone who enjoyed crafting, sewing, crocheting and making gifts by hand for family and friends, Aileen also understood the effort that goes behind home-grown products.

“There’s a real push worldwide to support small businesses and try to live more sustainably, so by buying from local vendors and artists, the products are not travelling miles and are not mass-produced, but coming a short distance and are unique,” says the former airport employee and personal assistant. “It has also been a difficult time for small businesses to get exposure and customers during the pandemic.”

Aileen and her husband, 34, who works in the aviation industry, designed the Not in the Malls website “to make these beautiful products available easily to more people 24/7 … and to provide a new shopping option for people in the UAE”.

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Supporting local has never been so important … we want to create an online community to promote this as much as possible

The site also allows overseas shoppers to purchase gifts for relatives living in the UAE, removing the need for costly international shipping.

Thirty-six "partners" currently feature on the portal with products ranging from homeware, baby goods and art to pet accessories, candles, fashion and beauty items. A new section is dedicated to Christmas.

For Emily Thomas, Not in the Malls offered an effective way to access the e-commerce boom in the UAE and beyond, as retail has adapted to Covid-led fears and restrictions.

The Briton, 26, who lives in Dubai Marina, has grown Desert Runway Illustrations from a lockdown hobby into a full-time job. "I transform photos into artwork that customers can display around their home or share as gifts. One of my popular products at the moment are personalised Christmas cards with family photos on the front," she says.

“A lot of customers are shopping online more than ever and are massively supportive of small businesses to help see them through the tough year we have all had,” she adds, saying she joined Not in the Malls to support what is, essentially, another local business.

Artisan products all 'Tied Up With String' 

TiedUpWithString.ae is another portal that added its weight to the e-commerce landscape with an online marketplace on November 11, in time for the festive shopping flow.

It was created by the team behind the physical pop-up of the same name in The Lakes, Dubai, with a strong "shop local" message. The team have assembled a collection of more than 1,000 products from 50 artisans and more familiar home-grown names. Products include paintings from Pop and Toast, trendy cement planters by Beach 2 Barnyard , Skincare By Mai and fashion brands Neon Starfish and Vanya's Closet Dubai.

Tied Up With String's head of brands Gabby Santa Maria says the focus is on supporting small, creative businesses by combining "unique and special items" with an easy, convenient shopping experience. "Supporting local has never been so important … we want to create an online community to promote this as much as possible," she says.

Tied Up With String and Not in the Malls join the likes of Saffron Souk and Jokoka, also a 2020 entrant, in putting independent creatives under the online shopping spotlight. Aileen says there’s no doubt the pandemic has helped power her business, with some people still reluctant to venture into malls and markets.

"More people are shopping online, and as all our products are delivered directly via courier. This limits everyone's exposure. Also, importantly, we hope it will help to keep small businesses in business."