Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bargains during downturn in Dubai

More bargains now than ever. A property developer advertises 'buy one get one free' for its apartment units....a car dealer advertises 'buy now, get AED10,000 cash, pay in 90 days, 5 year free service' etc.

However, the second hand market is booming with real bargains as more Dubai expats are either leaving due retrenchments or staying with more prudent way of life....and online transactions are also busier with hits and deals.

Boom time for thrifty market
(SASAN SAIDI)



If prudence and frugality is in, a surge in the number of bargain hunters is setting the second hand market ablaze in the UAE. And this trend, say insiders, is driving consumers to be more aware and conscious of their purchases.

"We are seeing a sharp increase in buyer-seller interactions where buyers are asking more questions," says Sameh Lutfi, the sales and marketing manager of online marketplace Souq.com.

"Users are spending considerably more time on the site both listing products for sale as well as for deals."

Colin Cordery, the general manager of Automall, Al-Futtaim Motors and Trading Enterprises' used car division, echoes the view.

"In a slowdown, people tend to shop around more before making the buying decision and are often more bold in asking for that special deal. The decision to buy is also taking a bit longer as people tend to mull over the decision, take advice from family and friends and are generally more cautious about long term financial commitments."

Three-year-old Souq.com, which received an average 600,000 unique visitors in January, has seen user numbers grow higher than its usual 20 per cent rate in the past few months, says Lutfi.

"Though the majority of the items sold are brand new, we are seeing the number of pre-owned goods on the increase and now stand at approximately 40 per cent of all items sold," he adds.

Popular classifieds website Dubizzle.com has also been "flooded" in the past few months, according to managing partner and co-founder JC Butler.

"It's really boom time for the second-hand market," he says. "Between September last year and February 2009, user traffic has gone up from 415,000 unique users to 815,000.

"While the number of items being sold in the classifieds section went up from 5,000 to 12,000, cars and autos went from 2,000 to 4,500. Property offered for rent went up from 6,500 to 49,000 in the same period. And March numbers will be much higher.

"Some of these numbers are natural growth in visitor numbers. But of course, the current economic climate has a lot to do with it.

"Before, many of our visitors were mostly people just looking for the good deals. Now, many people are apprehensive about long term financial commitments and are concerned about the uncertainty of their jobs.

Interestingly, the number of people looking to buy properties is still on the rise, says Butler.

"These are people looking for deals. When the market reaches a certain level, people look to pounce," he says. "Last summer, when the property market was going crazy, a lot of people were holding on to their properties. The market slowed and all of a sudden, prices were less attractive. Now they want to get rid of it and the market just flooded."

But the hottest market today clearly seems to be that of automobiles.

Butler says Dubizzle.com's Auto section received more than three million page views in February alone while Souq.com's Motors Marketplace saw a "dramatic increase", according to Lutfi.

"Customers' buying habits are reflective of the economic climate. What we are seeing in 2009 is that new car sales growth is slowing but the second hand car sales are holding their market position. Whilst a new car may be slightly out of their reach right now, a quality pre-owned vehicle can be more affordable," says Cordery from Automall, which has showrooms in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ajman.

"We have seen a steady increase in the number of enquiries through our showrooms and online."

While deal seekers have an increasing number of options, the current bargain boom is also a good time for people to take advantage of "trading up" opportunities, says James Crichton, sales and marketing director of BMW Group Middle East.

"The increase in the number of people wanting to sell their cars is not only a result of people looking to get rid of their vehicle for cash reasons, but also for existing customers to invest in a more prestigious model in our product portfolio," he says.

BMW Premium Selection, a global programme set up specifically for customers in the used car market has been operational in the Middle East since 2007. Sales across the region between January and February increased 188 per cent over the same period last year, says Crichton, with the biggest market being Saudi Arabia.

"Quality and affordability are a major consideration for customers now," he says.

Increased demand is also pushing these service providers to introduce special features or infrastructural improvements to retain customers and business.

Lutfi from Souq.com says his website's recent launch of an Arabic interface for the UAE has seen a huge spike in traffic from the Arabic speaking population in Abu Dhabi and other Emirates.

"We have also been approached by many retailers who are now looking at liquidating large volumes of inventory through online sales and auctions. So you will soon see some sales on brand new luxury products that will be selling at 50 per cent of their retail value and even lower," he says.

Dubizzle.com's Butler says his company is planning to launch the service in Abu Dhabi shortly.

"The increase in traffic has also changed everything we do because we need to keep building an infrastructure to support it and make sure the site runs smoothly," he says.

"But of course, the more captive audience we have, the more page views we get and the more inventory we to sell. Which means more income from advertisements.

"It's been good so far."