Tech Talks: A Conversation with Salama Alabbar

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According to a recent study by Visa, the MENA territory represents the fastest growing and emerging e-commerce region in the world, led by the United Arab Emirates. Visa’s findings report a 45 percent growth in sales per year from USD 10 billion in 2011 to USD 15 billion in 2012. It is no wonder, then, that Middle Eastern merchants are eager to jump on the digital bandwagon. Leading the expedition is Emirati entrepreneur Salama Alabbar, who is the founder and director of Symphony boutique, The Dubai Mall’s first and only luxury concept multi-brand boutique, who recently opted to take her successful brick-and-mortar store to the digital marketplace in the form of international luxury fashion e-tail site The site, which is the first of its kind in the Middle East, features a bespoke digital shopping experience that includes a handpicked curation of over a hundred designers from around the world. Here, Salama Alabbar discusses the launch of and sheds light on the obstacles and opportunities for e-commerce platforms in the region.

What was the opportunity you saw with the launch of
Our main aim was to share the Symphony experience with the widest audience possible. We’ve had many enquiries to expand Symphony to different cities in the Middle East. We believe the e-commerce platform,, allows us to service all our customers and provide them with the Symphony experience wherever they are in the world. The website also allows clients to find out more about the brands available and to keep themselves updated on our events and happenings through Notes BySymphony.

How do you create a true luxury experience online? How does hold the same spirit of Symphony boutique?
We offer a number of services through to ensure a smooth and enjoyable shopping experience to our customers, including next-day, same-day, and four-hour delivery windows, free returns, Arabic and English customer service representatives, and secure payment. translates our in-store shopping experience to an online luxury fashion store that retains the essence of the Symphony boutique. Reflecting the pioneering spirit that Symphony has come to be known for, our new bespoke e-commerce website features more creative and interactive content than ever, showcasing over 100 internationally renowned designers from all over the world.

What was the biggest obstacle you faced in creating
Luxury e-commerce is such a new space to tackle in the Middle East. The learning curve of creating such a business in the area was very steep. I had a very clear idea in my mind of what I wanted to be, however, there was so much to learn and execute on the technical side of things. I still took the risk and I was very fortunate to work with an amazing team of people who have brought the concept of to life. There is so much that I am still learning and it has been a very exciting project!

Can you talk about the concept behind the ‘Founding Members’ program?
We have an amazing base of clients in Dubai and different parts of the GCC who have been shopping through our Dubai Mall store or following us through social media, and we wanted to offer them something special. We developed the ‘Founding Members’ program to give our existing clients a VIP experience when shopping on our newly launched online platform. The program gave clients who signed up the opportunity to be included in exclusive promotions, previews, and sale alerts along with the future opportunity to reserve from the runway. When launched, a hundred Founding Members were drawn at random to receive custom-made, limited-edition purses by Reem Juan along with VIP access to shop on before the transactional site was live to the public for online shopping.

How will cater to a regional and international audience? Who is your target clientele?
Our clients come from many diverse backgrounds. The thing they all have in common is that they are all strong women who are both inspiring and inspired; they do not follow trends, but set them. I also saw a gap in Dubai for international fashion catered to our local market. I loved so many pieces from so many designers bought by other stores here, but they were not wearable for us locals. That’s how I started to buy for Symphony, buying for the market I know best, the UAE nationals. From there, I was able to understand more about the people who shop at our store and what they were looking for and was able to expand our product mix to cater to local, expat, and tourist clients.

In your opinion, how will e-tailing transform the retail sector in the Middle East?
We are very lucky in Dubai to have the best shopping malls with such a wide selection of merchandise. However, this selection is not available to everyone. Through e-commerce we can make it all available to clients wherever they are, and with a guarantee of free returns, there’s no reason to hesitate. E-commerce in the Middle East brings a new form of convenience to our clients.

Looking into the future, where do you see in five years? will be the first luxury women’s clothing retailer to have an e-commerce platform that is available in both English and Arabic. Five years from now, we see sitting as the leading hub for luxury fashion in the Middle East, also providing a launch platform for regional designers. We’re moving in the direction of carrying more contemporary brands that will sit well beside our luxe eveningwear and growing local talent, which will allow our customers to have access to a variety of brands both niche and international.

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