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Web window shopping, the Lebanese way
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BEIRUT: You can look, but you can’t buy – at least not on, a new fashion retail website with a concept tailor-fitted to Lebanon’s shopping culture. A site still in its beta version beginnings, Raghunter offers shoppers a searchable database of fashion items from local outlets and designers, through which they can make shopping lists, compare prices or simply window shop from the comfort of their home.

The idea of online browsing without the purchase function is one specifically developed for Lebanese customers, of whom less than 10 percent buy things through the Web, though they are still tech savvy enough to appreciate the convenience and eye candy of digitized inventories.

It also offers more exposure to homespun boutiques and local designers who often complain about the difficulties of penetrating the Lebanese market.

“We never worked in the fashion industry, so what we did was research what services can we provide that will help the industry,” said Narina Najm, who founded Raghunter together with Serene Abbas and Jad Sarout.

“The main message is that we want to be the local reference for fashion here and that’s what you’ll see with the content,” Abbas added.

The concept is simple, but Abbas and Najm took the hard road to get there. The two 20-somethings met while working for the international advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. Though they got out of advertising, the two held onto its core principle: i.e., market research.

The two young women conducted months of interviews with Lebanese consumers, designers, shop owners and others in the industry. They asked dozens of questions and taped every interview, each taking up to an hour and a half, they said.

“We did proper market research ... and the results were very qualitative,” Abbas said.

What they found is that many fashion retailers had looked into e-commerce and had even begun planning the infrastructure for taking orders.

“Many of them had gotten to the point of being able to launch tomorrow, but then backed out because of the massive job it would be for such a small amount of business it would bring in,” Najm said.

Many of them were ready to put their inventories online, Najm added, but simply didn’t want to spend the resources building and managing a website.

And on the consumer end, their research affirmed that local consumers didn’t trust the idea of putting their credit card information online and felt they had the time to buy directly from shops.

“It’s a relatively small market, everything’s accessible, but doing the actual turn around town takes time,” Abbas said.

So far, Raghunter has attracted around 65 retailers and designers, a pretty diverse mix of high-end local designers, small boutiques and big brand such as Lebanon’s branch of Vivienne Westwood and the GS stores.

The number of outlets is steadily increasing, evidence of which lines the table at Raghunter’s offices in Ain al-Mreisseh. Stacks of oddball, colorful ballerina flats with strange objects glued to their toes, a picnic scene, a glass of wine and a cupcake wait to be photographed.

The pair photographs and catalogues every item individually, and Najm said she’s gotten to learn a bit about fashion photography as a result. Jewelry, for example, required a light box, special equipment to photograph under soft light, she said.

Their third partner, Sarout, is Raghunter’s chief technical officer and coordinates with their site-development partners Keeward.

The young women said he was the glue that bound the project together. They said they schmoozed the self-taught technical guru for months before he finally gave in and got on board.

As they look toward the future, the founders said it could take a year or two to finalize the site and even then it would be an ongoing process of updating stock information, as well as providing consumers with written content offering style and trend articles, buying guides and seasonal shopping tips.

Asked if Raghunter has helped their own shopping habits, the two said running the site has ironically put shopping on the backburner.

“We don’t have a lot in our closets,” Najm said, and Abbas joked: “We mostly shop in the office right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 23, 2013, on page 2.
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