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DUBAI: Before the pandemic, online shopping was still a growing sector in Pakistan. When the lockdowns ensued, people were forced to shop digitally, and that brought about an incredible boost to Pakistan’s e-commerce industry.

Such was the drastic change that these e-commerce platforms were overwhelmed with trying to cope with demand. In the face of this surge, existing businesses expanded and many more took root. The hesitation and inhibition towards online purchases weakened, and realisation of the ease and possibility of returns also gave impetus.

Bagallery, a beauty and fashion e-commerce store, is also one such entity that has reaped benefits of this growth in business post pandemic.

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Co-founded in 2017 by Mina Salman and Salman Sattar, the Dubai-based husband and wife team are behind the business that raised $4.5 million in a Series A funding round in December last year. This came after it had also announced raising $900,000 as a pre-Series A round in November 2020.

A brainchild of the stay-at-home mum, the platform was initially launched in Dubai, targeting the UAE and Middle Eastern market. But it wasn’t long before they realised the potential in Pakistan.

With the e-commerce industry growing at a healthy pace, the duo shifted focus of their business – they are now shipping around the world from Pakistan.

Talking about the challenges of running a business in Pakistan while being based in Dubai, Sattar says, “It is not easy and I have to travel back and forth however, we are very lucky to have an amazing team in Pakistan which is the most important factor for any business.

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“One cannot overlook all elements of a growing business oneself. As we grew, it became vital for us to put together a team of motivated youngsters and they have shown great responsibility and accountability.”

Buoyed by its success, Sattar left his Dubai job to focus full time on the business – Dubai’s proximity to Karachi helped in terms of running the business and travelling back-and-forth.

While there were times that they considered moving to Karachi, their vision now is to expand the business internationally, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to realise this expansion plan, managing a regional business while being in Dubai is much more plausible.

“Our supply chain also comes through Dubai,” says Salman, “So it makes more sense to remain here.”

Talking about the benefits of being based in Dubai, Sattar says the exposure there is immense and Dubai is a few years ahead of Pakistan when it comes to embracing new technology and experimenting.

Secondly, Dubai also gives better connectivity to venture capitals and investors.

“There are venture capitalists in Pakistan but their number is quite low. There are a lot of companies in Dubai with whom we can foster relationships and introduce them to the Pakistani market. After a certain stage, there will be a need for Pakistan to attract investment from foreign investors to grow businesses. It is challenging to capture that investment while living in Pakistan and it is easier to do so while residing in Dubai because connectivity is high and developing relationships is easier,” explains Sattar.

How did the pandemic affect them and did they change their strategies?

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Salman says that when the pandemic hit, like everyone else, they too were clueless about how to manage their business. But then they saw that e-commerce platforms were gaining strength.

With people unable to go out of their homes, online markets came to their rescue.

“We changed our business model and geared up backhouse systems and operations and our team worked tirelessly. Gradually, the business developed. Due to the pandemic, people learned new skills like working and managing things from home and even shopping from home. Many new start-ups emerged during this time, and many people left jobs to start e-commerce-related businesses so I think the entire sector benefitted immensely.”

Sattar says that a huge difference was witnessed in consumer acceptability during the pandemic because consumers, particularly in Pakistan, don’t readily want to try new things.

“It’s not that e-commerce did not exist prior to Covid, it was there but people refrained from trying it due to a low trust factor. But the pandemic forced their hand. And when they did and it worked out well, that drove a mindset change which benefited e-commerce businesses massively,” he explains.

In the face of this e-commerce mini revolution, the entrepreneurs have some exciting plans in the pipeline for Bagallery.

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“We are focusing a lot on private labels. We have launched one a year ago and it’s doing well and we plan to expand rapidly. Up until now, we were only selling shoes, bags and clothing but now we are entering the accessories market and plan to enlarge the clothing segment.

“We have already acquired one private label and a few more are in the pipeline so we can have exclusivity for our platform.”

Talking about the future of e-commerce in Pakistan, Sattar animatedly says that Pakistan is a sleeping giant with a population of over 200 million, with a 100 million mobile phone users. At a certain point, Pakistan had to rise.

“We are lucky that in the last three years, things have moved in a very strong direction when it comes to start-up e-commerce. Local venture capitals worked extremely hard to showcase themselves at a global stage and now for the last 18 months, we are seeing that international venture capitals have enhanced interest in Pakistan and this is set to continue in the next few years. It’s a huge opportunity for venture capitalists globally to enter Pakistan because it is the 6th largest country in the world so it cannot be ignored.”

Salman adds that a lot of budding entrepreneurs are looking towards e-commerce startups and their focus has now shifted from trying to secure employment in multinational companies. They are entering with unique and innovative ideas. Sattar intercedes, “We have many success stories and this is driving youngsters towards experimenting which is bringing in new ideas and growth in economy and talent.”

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022


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