Online shopping is such a fantastic concept, isn't it? Pop yourself down at the computer, have a casual browse from the comfort of your own home, tap in your credit card details and bingo - your shiny, new purchase arrives in a matter of days, or hours in some cases. No malls to contend with; no changing rooms to queue for; no hassle. And things are even better when it comes to high fashion online. It's usually the British site Net-a-Porter that is consistently celebrated for its ease of use and speedy service. Having just celebrated its 10th birthday, it's seen off and outlived many other online shopping experiments, now attracting three million visitors a month and preparing to launch a menswear equivalent site, Mr Porter, in January.
Which is all very well, of course, but what about shopping somewhat closer to home via the online shopping sites in the UAE? There are a handful of them, most obviously the online version of Boutique 1, which was heralded by the Financial Times as one of the top global sites for fashion-savvy shoppers last month, along with another Middle Eastern choice, Dia-boutique.com. But how well do these websites work? After all, this is a country where internet penetration still lags behind many others, where physical addresses are something of a mystery, where most of us live within 20 minutes or so of a gigantic mall anyway, and where the process of shopping is looked upon as a kind of sport.
For this, our third and final piece in a series examining online fashion, we put a string of UAE-based sites to the test. A list of six was drawn up, featuring Boutique 1, Dia Boutique, Aura-B, Moda House, Fame Closet and 3abaya. The plan was to order an item from each and record the process - from ordering to returning each item again. How difficult could that be? Well, pretty challenging for a couple of sites. Both Fame Closet and 3abaya fell at the first hurdle because they don't accept returns. "We don't anticipate that people will want to change the dress, only the size of it," said Jenny Onmolu, manager of Fame Closet, when I quizzed her on this. She insisted that no customer had ever asked for her money back, and while Fame Closet will replace a piece, it doesn't offer refunds.
No refunds at 3abaya either. "All our abayas are made to measure so if the measurements provided by the customer are correct there is no need for a return," they say, adding that they have never faced a problem with any of their orders. Still, one can't help but be slightly discouraged from ordering anything if you know there's scant chance of your money back. Of the others, there was greater success; everything arrived within a few days of ordering, some parcels the very next day. True, the address system makes delivery slightly more fraught than it might be in other countries. But generally, the Aramex and DHL delivery men are ready for this, and navigate using landmarks. In every case, they all returned to pick the items up for return again, saving you a trip to their depots and generally making the whole process stress-free. Which is, after all, what online shopping is all about.
What's for sale: Well, it styles itself as an art-and-fashion boutique, so unsurprisingly both art (paintings, photography and sculpture) and fashion are available - the latter for women, men and children. How's the website? Quirky. Designed, one imagines, to give the impression of a small, bijou shop full of treasure. It loses marks for poor display pictures of its clothes, but claws some back for offering prices clearly in both dirhams and US dollars.
What I ordered: A bright pink JoJo sundress, embroidered with multi-coloured beads, for US$110 or Dh404. Payment options: Most major cards are accepted or you can pay by Paypal, or fork over cash upon delivery. Delivery policy: Free delivery within 48 hours anywhere in the UAE with Aramex. Delivery elsewhere in the world takes 3-5 days; delivery costs depend on where it's going. The site has a nifty calculator enabling you to work this out.
When did it arrive? The fastest of the lot. Having ordered it on a Monday lunchtime, it arrived at 11 am the next day. Bravo. Packaging? Aramex bag unwrapped, the dress was contained in a slightly crumpled white Aura B box with purple ribbon ties across it. Pretty, if not quite as sturdy and impressive as Boutique 1's effort. Returns policy: Well, my e-mail to the given address (firstname.lastname@example.org) was bounced back, so I rang them instead. A faintly grumpy-sounding lady said that was fine, she would arrange for the courier to come back free of charge, which they did that day. I am now waiting for my refund to arrive in the form of a cheque, because they don't refund to cards. All returns need to be organised within seven days. The verdict: The clothing and shoe range was disappointing (one shoe range for women - really?) and the site is ever-so-slightly clunky to use. Plus, who really wants to have to go to the bank to pay in a cheque? But there are several pretty jewellery pieces available and service is swift.
What's for sale: Nothing to do with Villa Moda, Moda House is basically the online equivalent of an outlet mall, catering to both men and women. The site claims to offer 40-70 percent discounts on labels such as Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Fendi, Burberry and so on. There are some pretty things - a pair of Gucci ballerina flats for Dh1,100, for example, a Prada pencil skirt for Dh800. But much like you do at outlet malls themselves, you need to sift through some of the dross to find the gems.
How's the website? It feels dated and several of the display pictures show clothes simply placed on waxy mannequins. But then this is a discount website; it's not pretending to be anything else. What I ordered: A white Gucci sun hat with red and blue trim for Dh785. Why not? Payment options: Black mark to Moda House for this. They only offer Paypal or the "cash on delivery" option. I opted for Paypal, but the site then irritatingly explained that Paypal doesn't accept currency in dirhams. So I was forced to pick the cash-on-delivery option, meaning a trip to the bank during work the next day to take out Dh785 for the delivery man. Hardly convenient.
Delivery policy: Orders made within the hours of 9.30am-7pm every weekday will be delivered the following working day (with the exception of weekends). Delivery is free for the UAE; costs vary for international countries. When did it arrive? At 3pm the next day, having received a phone call 30 minutes after placing my order online the day before to check what time suited me and thanking me for shopping with them.
Packaging: The hat was wrapped in white tissue and in a smart black bag. Not terribly exciting, but neat all the same. Returns policy: Easy peasy. I e-mail saying I need to return the hat because it doesn't fit. They say this is not a problem and they'll send a courier to collect it. He doesn't appear for a few days, but when he does, he hands me back Dh785. Everyone's happy. Moda House asks that it be notified of your wish to return an item within 10 days of receiving it. The verdict: If you're a label freak, then this is the place to bag a bargain. Just be prepared to look hard, and have a stack of ready cash waiting for the delivery man.
What's for sale: Unusual fashion labels for women, which the Dia team have sourced from around the globe. Gorgeous kaftans made from Egyptian cotton, bright bikinis from France, pretty shirts from Turkey, and Bodyamr pieces among them. It's not cheap, and several pieces cost a few hundred US dollars, but there are beautiful things to be had on there.
How's the website? Pretty and inviting; the kind of site on which you could happily sit for 20 minutes leafing through their wares. There's a "magazine" section too, which offers a blog on fashion news and articles from some of Dia's designers. What I ordered: A pair of handmade Liwan sandals from Lebanon for US$90, or Dh330. Payment options: Most major credit cards are accepted. Delivery policy: "Different items are shipped from different places," I am told when I ring to check how long it will take my Lebanese sandals to arrive. I am charged US$26 for delivery, although $8 is refunded because my first choice colour of pink isn't available, so I accept white instead. In all cases, though, delivery is promised within a week of your order date.
When did it arrive? Five days after I ordered them, via Aramex. Packaging: Basic. The sandals arrived enclosed in a simple plastic bag. Returns policy: Not a problem. I email to say I'm sorry but they don't fit, and get a charming email back from Iris in their office saying it's not a problem, she's returned plenty of things she's bought online. Service with an electronic smile. Aramex returns to pick it up, and my card will be refunded as soon as they've arrived back again. The verdict: The slowest delivery of all, but the most charming and personal service as well as the most interesting and unusual stock.
What's for sale: High fashion for men and women, with more than 150 labels available. Think Victoria Beckham, Hervé Léger and Paul & Joe. Also, beauty products and trendy lifestyle knick-knacks. The place to shop if you need a Marc Jacobs coffee-table book, for instance.
How's the website? User-friendly and easy to navigate, with helpful sizing charts and good zoom options alongside each piece. Plus, the chance to ask for styling advice from the Boutique 1 team. What I ordered: A turquoise, Issa crepe de chine shirt for Dh850. "Tuck this diaphanous style into cropped pants and add pin-thin heels for drinks downtown," said the blurb next to it. Adding a Dubai-relevant note to the clothes is a clever touch.
Payment options: Mastercard, Visa and JCB cards all accepted. Or you can ring them up and order over the phone. Delivery policy: Sounds great. Four-hour delivery offered to all Emirates for between Dh100-Dh200, or next-day delivery anywhere in the UAE for free. Delivery to the rest of the GCC takes 1-2 days or 2-3 days for anywhere else in the world for between Dh120-Dh180. When did it arrive? Two days after ordering with DHL - not quite as promised, then.
Packaging? The best of the bunch. Boutique 1 has clearly taken lessons from Natalie Massenet of Net-a-Porter when it comes to presentation. The Issa shirt arrived wrapped in tissue inside an elegant white box stamped with Boutique 1's name and tied with a brown ribbon. Returns policy: Easy enough, although there's quite a bit of paperwork that comes with it. First, you have to get a special code from Boutique 1 before filling in three different DHL forms. Then you ring up DHL, give them the code and they come to collect it for free. They need to be notified about returns within 14 days of you receiving the order. I received an e-mail two days after sending my shirt back saying the refund had been authorised to my card. Efficient.
The verdict: The winner because of the sheer range of labels and almost faultless online service provided. The website all other aspiring UAE sites should learn from.