|Online retail firm delivers Lebanese expatriates all the comforts of home
|Until 2000 a Lebanese expatriate living in America was forced to swallow his or her craving for baklava and would have been hard-pressed to come by zataar to season labneh. Enter BuyLebanese.com, an online portal that sells about 300 Lebanese products in 92 countries around the globe, laying to rest this diaspora dilemma.
Now at the click of a mouse (give or take two or three days for delivery), customers have access to anything and everything Lebanese, from little Phoenicia Dolls ($16 plus shipping) to T-shirts, soap, nargilehs and mosaics.
BuyLebanese was created by Karim Saikali upon his return to Lebanon after a two-year stint in the U.S. at the height of the dot-com boom of 1998-99. Frustrated with the absence of Lebanese products on the international market, Saikali decided to venture into the virtual marketplace.
Financially speaking the start-up required minimal investment, though Saikali - along with his former partner Nasri Messarra - put in 1500 hours over a six-month period to get the company off the ground.
"The beauty of e-commerce is the low overhead. We spend almost no money on advertising, and don't have any staff," says Saikali.
"I've never seen overhead exceed $400."
Since Messarra left the company in 2003, BuyLebanese has been a one-man show starring Saikali and his trusty palm pilot. After receiving an order via e-mail, he forwards the request to a subcontracted courier company, Aramex, which packages and ships the goods.
The U.S. accounts for 70 percent of his revenue, Saikali said, but significant demand comes from Europe, too. Lately orders from Greenland are on the rise.
Since its inception, the company has grown by an average of 25 percent per year, according to Saikali, who estimates that this year's sales will be the best yet due to increased demand for wholesale products coming from the Far East, where Lebanese goods have yet to penetrate the market.
Lebanese sweets are the most popular item, and food products in general account for 90 percent of the 1,000 retail orders BuyLebanese processes annually.
In October BuyLebanese.com was among the 1,600 websites included in "The Purple Book of Best on-line Companies" published by Time Warner books.
Saikali's advertising strategy is crucial to the success of BuyLebanese, since it keeps overhead low. Because word-of-mouth is crucial, Saikali focuses on maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction, which he reports at 99 percent. Saikali argues that the absence of customer-care standards in Lebanon has undermined the competitiveness of the Lebanese export sector.
"If you receive a complaint you e-mail a response or fix it within 24 hours, because one happy customer is great, but one dissatisfied one can hurt business. Our customers feel they are dealing with a Lebanese company with U.S. standards."
Suppliers pay Saikali an annual fee to advertise on his site, making for an additional income of at least $1500 and often more, depending on volume of sales. Smaller suppliers are allotted space free of charge.
Saikali enjoys free advertising from the 15-20 suppliers who have incorporated the BuyLebanese logo into their packaging.
The Daily Star