Safety first: Afghan shoppers go online to avoid bombs, harassment

KABUL, June 9 (Reuters) - Shoppers in the Afghan capital are going online for everything from fashion to furniture to avoid bomb attacks and sexual harassment, with dozens of start-ups doing a brisk trade where there were few on the ground two years ago.

Suicide bombings and other attacks in Kabul have killed and wounded hundreds of people this year and security is expected to deteriorate ahead of elections planned for October. Sexual harassment on the street is widespread.

The new retailers, with names like AzadBazar.af, afom.af, JVBazar.com and zarinas.com, sell goods ranging from cosmetics, computers, kitchenware and furniture to cars, rugs and real estate. One website advertises foreign brands including Rolex, Adidas and Zara.

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6 rules to follow when shopping online
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6 rules to follow when shopping online
1. Make sure that the website you are ordering from is secure
"Many websites will have a seal at the bottom stating that the website is indeed secure and will not make your information public under any circumstances. A site that has 'https://' at the beginning of their web address as well as a padlock symbol is typically a site to trust." -My Broken Coin
2. Search for product reviews beforehand
"Returning items to online stores can be a major hassle. So why not find out what others think of the product before you purchase it online? For example, before buying a new laptop, search for comments and complaints associated with the brand. If there are more negative reviews than positive, and the same problem is reoccurring, then it may not be a brand worth investing in. This will save yourself from buying something that would have to be returned to the store soon after receipt." -My Broken Coin
3. Look for promo codes before checking out
"Who doesn't like saving money, especially on necessities? Almost every retailer will have some sort of promotion available, so ensure you look for one before purchasing. You may not find every code useful or relevant to your purchase, but there are plenty out there that could save you money. So, before you check out ensure you search your retailer for voucher codes and see how much you could save." -My Broken Coin
5. Check and double check your shopping cart
"When shopping online, it's incredibly easy to get side-tracked and accidentally add things into your shopping cart. For example, you may double click on an item and not notice that you've order two of it until it's too late. As well as this, if you've visited a site before but abandoned your cart before purchasing, the site will sometimes have saved your items when you visit again. Thus, it's incredibly important that you double check what you're buying." -My Broken Coin
6. Track your order
"Many sites give you the option to track you orders. This is especially handy when you need your order by a specific date (before Christmas, in time for a birthday party, etc.). Stay on-top of your order's location at all times, including the cities that it is arriving in and departing from every day. A lot of online trackers go through FedEx or UPS and are typically very accurate." -My Broken Coin
4. Price-match whenever possible
"Price-matching and price-comparison is the one of the best strategies for saving money while shopping online, as you will be able to purchase items that you otherwise would not have been able to afford. Retailers are in constant competition with each other to offer the best price and product to customers, so find the one that's offering the best deal." -My Broken Coin
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Student Asila Sulaimani described online shopping as a "good experience" in a country at war, with U.N. figures putting those under 25 at more than 60 percent of the population, the vast majority of them enthusiastic smartphone users.

"Who dares go out shopping these days?" she said.

"I am sure there are some people, but for me it has always been difficult ... Fears of an explosion, an attack and the most common thing, harassment, follow me like my shadow."

Tamim Rasa, 28, is the founder of Rasa Online which he started with $30,000 eight months ago. He has since signed contracts with more than 60 stores and traders, with 80 percent of his customers women and cosmetics "a big part of business."

The store has no physical presence in terms of stock, just an office of eight.

"We work as a connecting bridge between people and large stores and traders. A month ago, we were hardly managing to earn our expenses - we were making a loss - but now we are making a profit of 1,000 to 3,000 afghanis ($14 to $42) a day. It shows we are growing."

He is now looking to expand to Herat province in the west, Kandahar in the south, Balkh in the north and Nangarhar, neighboring Pakistan, in the east.

Esmatullah, 27, owner of Afghan Mart, which he set up just over a year ago, has a shop with 500,000 afghanis ($7,000) worth of goods.

"Big companies contact me to sell their imported goods. An average of 50 customers call me daily and we deliver," he said, adding that he too is looking to expand into the provinces by the end of the year.

 

DIVERSIONARY TACTICS

The biggest challenge, he said, was security in a city where one bomb blast can be followed by a second in the same area.

Many people who have to go out take diversionary routes through narrow side alleys, sometimes through people's homes and gardens, to avoid the threat and traffic of major roads and intersections.

"We have seen more bomb blasts in Kabul that delayed our delivery services," Esmatullah said. "When that happens, we stop delivering in that direction or that part of the city.

"But the insecurity is one of the reasons that our business has found its way. And besides the insecurity, there is a bad culture of street harassment that unfortunately our women face in cities."

Goods are delivered by motorcycle or public transport where possible and the deliverymen get paid up to 8,000 afghanis ($112) a month.

Commerce Ministry spokesman Musafer Qoqandi described online shopping as "unique" for a country at war for more than four decades, with about 50 companies in business, most of them unlicensed.

"The culture of online stores only started two years ago in Kabul and right now more than 20 online stores have a license to trade - there are many more that have yet to get their license and we encourage them to come forward.

"Around the world, online stores are dealing with billions of dollars annually. It is time for us to join this convoy ... It is hope-giving when we see the growing number of such stores in Afghanistan."

Student Roya Shakeb agreed.

"I needed some books for my exams. I searched shops and libraries without success - then I came across online stores. The book was on my doorstep the next day. Unbelievable." (Writing by Nick Macfie Editing by Robert Birsel)

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