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Emirates Woman October 2015.JPG



From Instagram shops to 3D couture, we investigate how social media is transforming the way we shop

A scan of the original print feature for Emirates Woman can be found here.

There's nothing quite like a shopping trip to make the heart race. If John Hughes films are anything to go by, a 1980s spree involved many outfit changes, several over-zealous swipes of a credit card and a car boot-full of bursting paper bags, all soundtracked by a jaunty tune. These days, all you need is a smartphone or laptop and the will to spend.


The way we transact has changed unrecognizably since the advent of online shopping, with the first e-purchase made over two decades ago (a Sting CD album, no less). According to a recent report by We Are Social, 42% of the world’s population are active internet users, with 35 million people using their phones for social networking. The most powerful group of mouse-clickers, millennials, account for half of all retail sales – on and offline – and spent 2.4 trillion US dollars this year alone. Now that’s a shopping spree.


E-commerce is booming, with experts predicting that in 2016, global online sales will increase by 16% to a massive US $1000 billion. It’s a far cry from the digital landscape in 2000, the year of internet giant Net-a-Porter’s inception. Founder Natalie Massenet started out selling a friend’s pashminas, connecting via a growling dial-up modem. At the end of the last financial year, the site recorded profits totaling £11 million.


The Middle Eastern digitalista is a powerful audience – the region is considered one of the fastest growing markets for e-commerce, valued at US $4.6 billion – and global e-tailers are taking notice. Farfetch has just added Etoile “La Boutique” to its repertoire, a significant addition to a growing roster of Middle Eastern boutiques. ‘The Middle East is one of our key markets’, says Pascale Colony, Business Development Director at Farfetch. ‘By partnering with the likes of D’NA and Etoile “La Boutique” Farfetch adds the expertise of inspirational Middle Eastern buyers to the website. These buyers are experts on the Middle Eastern consumer and really appreciate and understand luxury fashion from their point of view, they curate their boutique with a very specific customer in mind.’ Farfetch isn’t alone; last year, launched an Arabic language version of their site, opening up the offering to include regional designers, as well as providing fast delivery within the region and dedicated customer care advisors. Meanwhile, MAC Cosmetics and Vichy include Arabic voiceovers in their on-site videos, Gucci offers credit card and wire transfers as payment options for the UAE, and both Net-a-Porter and Moda Operandi create holiday edits for Ramadan and Eid.


It’s no secret shoppers are logging on, but a usable website simply isn’t enough anymore. The digital buyer wants a multichannel experience on every type of screen – from desktop to Apple watch – and the ability to make a purchase without leaving social media. Social commerce is big business, particularly in the Middle East, where 25% of the population is logging onto social sites on mobile devices. Superbrands are taking note and talking directly to local markets. Burberry and Guerlain each runs separate, Middle East-dedicated Twitter accounts, posting tweets in Arabic and English, while Topshop’s @Topshop_ME Instagram feed boasts nearly 60k followers.


E-tailers aren’t just building connections with customers via Instagram, they’re making sales. BySymphony, the online outpost of Dubai-based Symphony boutique, has created a shoppable Instagram feed. ‘Instagram definitely leads to sales’, says Mrs Amara Javed, the boutique’s Social Media Manager. ‘The “Shop Our Instagram” page is really popular – in this age, we want to make sure the customers have everything at their fingertips’. And it works – Javed tells us that Symphony’s sales of Mark Cross bags went through the roof following an Instagram post.


Fashion and Instagram are a winning combination, and one that’s being harnessed by Instagram. In July, the company appointed Eva Chen, previously Editor-in-Chief at Lucky Magazine, as Head of Fashion Partnerships. ‘Instagram is a place for creativity and expression, so is a natural fit for the fashion industry’, an Instagram representative told us. ‘For brands, there is a powerful opportunity to excite Instagrammers, to visually inspire them and build a brand connection.’


Seasoned scrollers will be aware of the platform’s targeted adverts and branded content, but shoppable Instagram feeds for individual users are still in the hands of external developers and start-ups. In 2014, RewardStyle, an affiliate network that enables fashion bloggers to earn money via shopping links, launched an Instagram-targeted initiative. LikeToKnow.It is a tool that allows for shopping within Instagram, without the need to exit the platform. Previously only available to select bloggers and publishers, it was rolled out to brands including ASOS, Selfridges and Moda Operandi earlier this year. If the company’s US $15 million investment and $290 million valuation are anything to go by, it’s set to change the face of social commerce.


In Kuwait, Instagram is no longer simply a marketing tool; it’s spurned whole businesses. Savvy entrepreneurs are creating virtual storefronts in what’s being dubbed an ‘Instagram economy’, showcasing everything from clothing to makeup services. Reem Alhemaidan posts images of her opulent kaftans on the @reem_alhemaidan account, taking orders exclusively via WhatsApp. Technology is giving independent Middle Eastern designers a newfound freedom, without the need for costly advertising, and granting them a direct line to customers.


Today, there are few major retailers that don’t embrace social media to connect with shoppers.  Ever the maverick, Net-a-Porter has taken things to the next level by creating a network of its own. Launched in May, the Net Set is an app where fashion fans can build profiles, connect with likeminded users, and join ‘Style Tribes’, as well as rub virtual shoulders with the likes of Poppy Delevingne, Julia Restoin-Roitfeld and Laura Bailey, part of the app’s elite Style Council. In their numbers, members have the power to influence their favourite designers, each of whom has a dedicated portal on the platform. Here, social and shopping collide like never before, signaling a shift in the way we shop. Online shopping is no longer simply about browsing, clicking and buying, but about being connected and inspired. It’s not unlike the traditional shopping experience – where bricks-and-mortar stores are social spaces – but now it’s not just friends whose advice you’re soliciting, it’s a global network of influencers. The lines between a virtual and real-life shopping experience continue to blur.


Online shopping isn’t limited to the screen of your smartphone. If you prefer bricks-and-mortar boutiques to virtual shops, there’s an app to make the experience infinitely better. 110k shoppers in the UAE have already downloaded Beam, an app enabling users to shop, earn and redeem rewards by turning smartphones into digital wallets – no cash or cards needed. It’s already accepted at over 1,200 stores in the region, and, thanks to massive investment, is poised for digital domination. Hot on its heels is the similarly functioning Apple Pay, soon to be rolled out across the UAE. But once you’ve paid, there lies the problem of carting your shopping bags around. In London, DropIt is taking the ‘drop’ out of ‘shop ‘til you drop’, with bag deposit points in or near major shops, and same-day delivery to your home or hotel – as well as exclusive offers at bars and restaurants for those much-needed pit stops. Genius!


What’s next? As shopping becomes increasingly easy, retailers need to be able to deliver – literally. Today’s shopper is impatient; she wants her newly purchased Saint Laurent bag the same day and soon, within the hour. Anticipating the need for immediacy, Amazon – one of the first ever online stores – is developing a drone service called Prime Air, designed to deliver within 30 minutes. Its launch is delayed by the fact that UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) are prohibited in many countries, but it has the potential to make fast fashion even faster.


Meanwhile, the buzz around wearable technology shows no sign of quieting – despite the failure of Google Glass – as brands compete to outdo Apple Watch and Android Wear with a range of alternative smartwatches. Luxury-loving techies are eagerly awaiting next month’s launch of Tag Heuer’s Carrera Wearable, part of a partnership with Intel and Google. And the tech world is abuzz with news of Sony’s first wearable offering – a minimalist watch made of e-paper, designed to change with the wearer’s movements. Fitness fanatics may rejoice – there’s a whole lot of wearable tech to make your workout more efficient, from Digitsole – an insole to better track steps and calories burned – to the Bragi Dash, wireless earbuds that play and stream music and monitor your heart rate – underwater. The only thing they don’t do is swim for you. There’s even a gadget that renders the socially unacceptable at-dinner phone gaze a thing of the past - Ringly is a ring that connects to your phone, sending you customized notifications through vibrations and light. Covert messaging, sorted.


One thing is clear: it isn’t enough for wearable technology to be just functional – it needs to be chic, too. And no one knows this better than tech fan and style doyen Karl Lagerfeld, who made fashion history by using 3D-printed textiles in Chanel’s Autumn/Winter ’15 Couture collection. The iconic tweed suit was reimagined in materials created by Selective Laser Sintering – a process whereby a laser fuses powdered plastics and metals. ‘Fashion has to follow what’s going on in the world’, explains Lagerfeld. ‘The idea was to take the most iconic jacket from the 20th century and turn it into a 21st century version which was technically not possible at the time it was born.’ These pieces don’t charge phones or track movements, but instead represent the use of technology for beauty alone.


However you choose to shop – by double tapping an Instagram post, browsing on your Apple Watch or using your phone to pay at an actual, IRL till – one thing’s for sure; the humble shopping spree will never be the same again. Regardless, we’re hyped for the possibility of Chanel-by-drone.




Five designers in the Middle East who’ve used social media to boost their brands




Lilian Afshar’s bug-adorned marble clutches are perfect props for the designer’s beautiful Instagram feed, watched by 22.6k followers




Russian-borned, Dubai-based Katya showcases her collection of East-meets-West pieces to a captive, 11k follower-strong audience




The abaya, in sleek modern guises, is the focus of Bouguessa’s refreshingly minimalist feed, shoppable via email




Reemami shows the importance of digital influencers, with regrams from bloggers such as Gala Gonzalez and Natalie Shushtova




Baraboux’s feed spotlights the bag brand’s stylish fans, namely Candice Lake, whose outfit posts have been proven to get followers shopping

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