When we first moved to Abu Dhabi almost 11 years ago, I was so busy navigating life as a new mother and also dealing with the culture shock of moving to the Middle East that I didn’t even think about shopping and if it was going to be accessible or not. In Australia, I had access to everything I needed and everything I was used to; in Abu Dhabi I had to make sure I was buying cow’s milk and not camel milk!
The idea of online shopping in Abu Dhabi was non-existent to me. I didn’t do a lot of online shopping back home so it didn’t even come on my radar when we moved to the land of sand. Back in the day, the shopping in Abu Dhabi was OK, not great. If I couldn’t find what I wanted, then I’d drive an hour up the highway to Dubai where the shopping was far superior. I made do with what I could access in either city. We didn’t have a mailbox, heck we didn’t even have a proper street address! We received a wedding invitation 6 months after the wedding! So the idea of ordering something from the States or anywhere else was just a foreign concept to me.
I discovered online shopping
Fast forward to 2010 and we are now living in Doha, Qatar. 9 years ago Doha was not what it is today. I often describe it as a small country down with massive skyscrapers. However, what did surprise me about Doha was that I felt the shopping was better than Abu Dhabi. We even had an H&M! It was not long after we moved to Doha that I discovered Aramex, and it was then that my life was changed forever… OK, that’s a little dramatic, but it was then that my shopping life changed forever.
I discovered Aramex
With an Aramex account, we had an Aramex PO Box in the States and the UK. I could order pretty much whatever I wanted and have the items shipped to either PO Box and it was then couriered to the Aramex office in Doha. I could be sitting at my laptop, a glass of ice-cold rose in hand ordering a whole new wardrobe from Old Navy and within 7 days I was parading around the house in all my new wares.
Oh how my eyes were opened to a whole new world of shopping. I had visited the States a few times over the years and we all know how great the shopping is there. For the first time I was able to buy clothes, makeup, jewellery, home furnishings from all the great brands that you always read about all from the comfort of my sofa, sometimes my bed.
My online shopping addiction got so bad that each time I went to the Aramex office one of the storeroom guys memorised my account number and would go and get my packages before I even had time to take a ticket number and get in line. What service!
We pretty much ordered everything online, all our clothing, Christmas presents, gadgets, party decorations, makeup, the whole shebang. It got to the point where I really didn’t even bother to check if I could get the goods locally, I just always jumped online. That was until the day when I made the mistake of ordering thermals for an upcoming ski trip and spending a small fortune on them, only to discover the next week that I could have bought them for a fraction of the price in our local Marks & Spencer.
After living through the thermal debacle of 2016, I changed the way I shopped. If we needed anything, I would always try and source locally first, and then if I couldn’t find what I needed then I’d head online and back to my trusty storeroom man at Aramex. It also didn’t help that Aramex dramatically increased their shipping charges and making cheap clothes from Old Navy all of a sudden become very expensive.
Another little gem on the internet that I discovered was a company called Borderfree. I was able to set up a Borderfree account with them whereby I could shop online through their affiliates and the goods were shipped directly to my husband’s office; no need for Aramex. We ended up saving quite a bit of money in international shipping and it was through Borderfree that I was able to buy a Michael Kors winter coat at 70% off through Macy’s. I still smile everytime I put that coat on and think of all the money I saved.
Last year we moved to our third Middle Eastern city, Dubai. Home to the world’s largest shopping mall where tourists descend on Dubai Mall by the bus-load. Shopping in Dubai for a self confessed shop-a-holic like me is heaven. It’s here in Dubai where I feel for the first time in 11 years that we are living in a “proper” city. Here, like all other major cities around the world, all the grocery stores deliver straight to your door. I can jump online to the Sephora website and order makeup that I don’t need and it gets delivered the next day. I’m an avid reader and always ordered my books from Amazon or Book Depository. Here in Dubai I can either wander through the immense Kinokuniya bookstore or I can head over to their website, like I did yesterday, and order the latest releases with a promise of delivery in 2 days’ time. Winning!
Shopping both in store and online in Dubai has become so easy that we haven’t even bothered to open an Aramex account here. If we do order anything online, I can jump onto Souq.com (the Middle Eastern affiliate of Amazon) and place an order which gets delivered to our house or office within a few days. I was able to place an order with Old Navy yesterday and use our Borderfree account to have the clothing delivered to the office.
Online shopping in Dubai is so easy that we have now been able to order goods from back home which we haven’t been able to do in the past. There are some smaller boutiques in Australia that I love but weren’t accessible to me in the past, now they are. The same goes for my husband and his love of watches. He has a penchant for new and vintage Breitlings. He compares prices all over the world at smaller boutiques and once he finds the right price he can have to couriered to his office. This wasn’t really an option for us in Doha. A lot of people who have never travelled to the Middle East can sometimes be put off by certain cities and feel they are being scammed. Dubai is such a well known and visited city now that smaller stores and boutiques feel more comfortable shipping goods to us.
Do I really need online shopping now?
I don’t think there will ever come a time where I don’t browse the internet for goods. I love shopping in all forms, but I must admit the shopping in Dubai is so good that I rarely need to go online shopping. I’m a weirdo that actually enjoys going to the grocery store to do my weekly shop, but I love that I do have the option to order online from all the supermarkets here and have it delivered. I know I’m the odd one out as everyone I know here orders pretty much EVERYTHING online from local stores. Maybe it’s the bus loads of tourists putting them off. All I know is I love having both options. I love that after 11 years I pretty much have everything I need at my fingertips and that my love of shopping has not diminished in the slightest.
So to end off, let me pass on some of my shopping wisdom to you. No matter where you live in the world, remember it’s always best to try and source things locally. There is no substitute for being able to satisfy yourself as to correct size, fit and quality. If you don’t know where to go then ask around, you’ll be amazed at what things you’ll discover from other expats and locals in your city.
If you can’t source something locally then definitely look into setting up an Aramex account, they have offices all over the world. If a store says they won’t ship to your location, give them a call and talk to them, you’ll be amazed at what someone will do for you once they speak to you in person. Borderfree for me was a dark horse that turned into my knight in shining armour. Just head to their website and you’ll see for yourself. Amazon is also a big go to for us as a family, whatever we want, they have. Expat shopping has forever been changed by the internet, Aramex, Borderfree and Amazon. Good luck and happy shopping!
Sarah Derrig is a seasoned expat and online shopper from Australia who has spent the last 11 years living in the UAE, Qatar and back to the UAE