Shop, play and stay in Wamli's immersive online store

A "shopper's paradise with a little geek thrown in", Wamli is a treasure trove of fun design products, and has a little something for social networkers and gamers too.

The co-creators of Wambli, an online start up company that offers residents of Dubai works of art and other household object that aren't readily available in retail stores. Lee Hoagland/The National
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Propped up in a corner of the room, in among the limited edition Mr Men prints and jars of ginger chews, the posters speak volumes. "Wherever you go, go with all your heart," says one; "Clockwise. Counter clockwise," reads another.

I am in a sun-drenched villa in the heart of Jumeirah, at the headquarters of the recently launched webstore, Wamli. The team has renamed the villa "Happy House", which, along with the posters, pretty much sums up how things are done here. This is a Google-esque working environment where suits and ties are anathema, meetings are held at the foosball table and creativity comes first.

There's a flurry of activity as I am introduced to the team, who are identified on their business cards as Rabih Ghandour, Wamli founder and CEO; Imad Ghandour, chief of products; Tarek Idriss, the unconventional strategist; and Swati Randev-Verma, social media and content freak.

Wamli was first envisaged about a year ago by Rabih, a self-confessed "daydreamer, college dropout and online geek", after he was commissioned to create an e-commerce website for a successful Dubai-based fashion boutique. "We did this amazing platform for them but it turned out that they were looking for more of an information site, so we put it to the side and started something else from scratch. But then we had this amazing platform and had to do something with it."

After playing around with a couple of ideas, Rabih came up with Wamli, an online hub that would sell a wide range of "crazy-funky-cool" design products but would also feature a number of social elements, as well as the odd bit of gamification. It's a site for the times - "a shopper's paradise with a little geek thrown in".

Rabih's cousin Imad left a job at Beirut Duty Free to take on the responsibility of sourcing Wamli's extensive portfolio of products. His new job is the stuff of dreams - travelling the world, from the backstreets of Seoul to Hong Kong's big gift fairs, looking for unique and unusual items to feature on the site.

"When we go to these countries, we don't go with a specific purpose," Tarek points out. "We go into these shops and we don't know what to expect."

"And that's what we want people to experience with Wamli," Rabih interjects. "That element of discovery. We don't want them to just go to the site to search for something that they already know is there. We want them to go and discover things."

Wamli currently offers almost 700 products by 41 brands, with new items being added every week. This includes everything from moustache-shaped pacifiers and neon-coloured disposable cameras to knuckle-duster mugs and statuesque figurines from Toy2R. In the Home Design section, there are snazzy stools, dog lamps and sunglass-shaped mirrors, as well as Dutch Design Chairs and quirky prints. Everything from the US$5 (Dh18) pins to the $3,000 foosball table is priced reasonably.

"We also buy everything and keep it in-house so we can ship the same day or the next day. We do not list anything that we don't have in stock," says Imad.

This is not the easiest, or cheapest, way to do things, of course, as it involves a heavy upfront investment in stock. But it does guarantee that Wamli can offer speedy delivery, something that is of paramount importance to the team. And anyway, this is not a group of people that seems unduly interested in taking the easy route. Hence why, instead of launching a simple, straightforward webshop, they decided to introduce social and gaming elements to the site, encouraging users to leave comments, follow others, engage in social activities and partake in the site's unconventional loyalty programme.

"Since it's a social site, whenever you do any social activities on it - let's say you invite your friends or you buy something - you gather points. You also get points when the people you invited buy something," Rabih explains. "The more active you are on the site, the more 'XP' you get. And as you get more XP, you go up levels. At certain levels you can unlock things that we call powers - for example, the power of the wind will give you free shipping worldwide, and the power of passage means you can pay with Wamli coins. Wamli coins are our currency and you can buy any products with them. It's not like a discount; it's like an actual currency."

There are various other powers, as well as distinctions - the Mighty Wamlian is the person on the site with the highest amount of "XP"; the Star is the person that is most followed; Rare Breed is someone who's bought more than 20 items, and so on and so forth. If it all sounds a bit complicated, that's because it is.

"We created a loyalty programme that is a bit complex because the more complex it is, the more people engage. We didn't want to make it easy or too superficial because then you'd play with it once and that's it. So we added a lot of depth to it. The idea is if you want to buy an item and you can either buy it here or somewhere else, you can buy it from Wamli and get rewarded for it," says Tarek."But the gamification is not imposed on members. Some people just want to come and buy and leave. The way the gamification is done, you can turn it off and just shop and leave, or turn it on and become involved with the loyalty programme. We made the interface very minimal, very clean, very non-invasive and non-obstructive. We put a priority on the shop itself and not the gaming," he continues.

For those that get it, the experience can become almost addictive, says Rabih. And Wamli's chief community officer, Swati, can vouch for that. "I joined the team because I thought the concept of Wamli was amazing. I'm not a big gamer so for me it was the curated products that appealed more than the gaming side of things. I have to say, though, that has changed."

Wamli was launched in beta mode in December, with an official launch scheduled for later this year. The response so far has been positive - if a little surprising. "When we launched, we put on paper that our target was X, Y, Z, people between the ages of 25 and 35 with high disposable and so on. But we've had huge variety. You've got people who are impulsive buyers, or are extremely social and are just there for the social side of it, or people who just want to play the game and gather points. So now, we don't have a target. Wamli is for anybody who loves design, who's a bit of a geek and who loves gaming," says Rabih.

"What's also interesting is we were initially targeting a mostly male audience but have ended up having more than 70 per cent female clients," adds Tarek.

While Wamli was initially envisaged as a global site, the team is currently focusing on establishing the brand in the UAE and wider region. Lebanon is Wamli's second biggest market, followed by Bahrain, Qatar and, unexpectedly, the UK. There are plans to launch a mobile edition and mobile apps, as well as a micro section on the site that is dedicated to featured brands. Further along the line, Rabih hopes to be able to offer an even more personalised Wamli experience.

"We're gathering all this data - what people are looking at, what categories they are interested in, what products they want and what they are sharing with others. At some point we want to do personalised and recommended shopping, so whenever you land on the home page you get exactly what you are interested in. This will be different for each individual person. I believe that this is the future of social e-commerce."

In the interim, the team will be busy scouring the globe for new, off-the-wall products to bring to the region, and more and more people will become immersed in the weird, wonderful and slightly wacky world of Wamli. "People love the site," says Tarek. "Those are the words they use: 'I love it'."

For shopping with a bit of geek, visit

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