The trials of operating an e-commerce business in Lebanon

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Philippe Abdeni is the chief operating officer at Bellamysworld, an e-commerce platform founded in 2003 in Lebanon for high-end luxury goods including jewellery, furniture and art 

The e-commerce sector in Lebanon has been growing rapidly, with more and more businesses setting up shop online. With simplified solutions now available, the process of creating an online store may seem like a simple feat. However, running an e-commerce business, especially out of Lebanon, can be one of the trickiest tasks. There are daily lessons to be learned, and many factors to be provisioned for, in order for the business to take off. 

The world has gone digital, and more and more customers are going online to gather information and make purchases. Today, more than ever, both small and large retailers are eyeing the potential of the e-commerce sphere. The necessity to be online is clear and can no longer be deemed a luxury.

When we set up the Bellamysworld.com website back in 2010, we were one of the first companies in Lebanon to have an e-commerce store. We opted to do it from scratch, build our own website and features, as there weren’t any streamlined solutions that existed at the time. Our industry, namely antiques, luxury goods, art and high-end accessories, added a layer of challenges, tied to positioning the company. As is the case for most e-commerce businesses, in order to scale, one must look abroad and try to capture an international audience. The local marketplace, especially for high-end products, offers limited growth opportunities.

The Challenges

For any business owner, setting up a company in Lebanon and focusing on online channels to drive sales, is a challenge in its own right. The recent and ongoing crisis that shook Lebanon has exemplified the challenges for us as a business; a sentiment shared by most industries.

A key obstacle one faces, when selling to an international audience is to facilitate payments through the site. Digital payment solutions are integral for purchases to be completed in a seamless and secure manner. In the current situation in Lebanon, payments received from local and international clients get channeled into local bank accounts, which limit your ability to make payments and purchase new products to sell online. Therefore, this is a factor that must be provisioned for. Understanding the markets’ needs allows you to manage your stocks efficiently.

Running an international e-commerce website that deals with antiques and art, also required us to create strong affiliations and partnerships with international experts and bodies, to reaffirm our credibility as a company.

Overcoming the Challenges

To overcome these challenges, we sought to change our mindset and seek opportunities instead.

Firstly, with regards to payments, any e-commerce business run out of Lebanon, should have international payment gateways listed on the site. PayPal is an ideal option, but requires an international entity with a bank account. There are local solutions that are slowly growing in size, yet having an international payment gateway creates a layer of trust, especially when selling to a global audience.  

Seeing that the local client base in the realm of arts and antiques, was quite limited, we had to tackle this issue in two ways. First, we ensured that part of our offering included expert services and content through consultations, our website and social media channels. Such offerings created a bond with art and antiques enthusiasts from all over the world. Secondly, we started targeting key markets abroad, interested in arts and antiques. With the tools we have at hand now, from Google Analytics to Facebook Pixels, e-commerce business owners can identify which markets are most interested in what is being sold, and target them accordingly. 

However, from experience, we were also quite surprised to see some unexpected clients visit our site, and make a purchase, from countries ranging from Thailand to the Fiji Islands. We hear this often from entrepreneurs in Lebanon – that some of their biggest markets, are ones they never thought of.

Having a strong website, a great user experience, extending excellent customer service, and a unique product offering, widens up prospects to clients that you can sell to. A reliable shipping company, as a partner, has proven to be greatly important. With trusted shipping companies, any shipping and return policies can be clearly shared, and the faster the client receives the package, the better. This has been a strong advantage for Bellamysworld.com

When we first set up the online store, the understanding of search engine optimisation (SEO) and digital marketing were in their primal years. Focusing on the website’s SEO, and using digital marketing tools, such as remarketing, Google Ads and ads on social media, has greatly boosted visibility. It is important to continue to track engagement levels and adapt the strategy of the brand accordingly. All technological components need to seamlessly come together to create an optimal client journey.

However, after years of e-commerce experience, we realised what matters most to clients are exceptional services and the personal touch. When running an e-commerce business, the interaction with the client is at a minimum, so creative ways to communicate your brand can come in handy. So, when your next shipment is dispatched, add a note to it, and see how far it goes. 

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