by Jimmy Dunn
Some four years ago, we initially set the on-line store up, arranging to buy Egyptian products from existing companies in the US. There were a number of people importing typical products from Egypt at that time, and we began to do business with several of them, but that soon became a problem. Repeatedly, they would be out of whatever items we sold, and frequently, the backorder would take months to arrive, if it indeed ever arrived at all. Sadly, we soon shut the storefront down, rather than sell products that could not be delivered. We always intended to reopen the Virtual Khan el-Khalili, but only after we had better arrangements.
Several years later, we were approached by a large and substantial Egyptian tour company that we had considerable knowledge of and experience with to reopen the store. They would become a partner, warehousing products in the US on our behalf. However, it did not take long for us to discover the sort of problems we had with the other suppliers.
In Egypt, one is unlikely to find any sort of catalog. Certainly there are probably a few companies that issue catalogs, but there are several reasons that they are rare. One reason is that the mail system in Egypt is unreliable, so it would be unprofitable to send out mail catalogs, not knowing where many of them would end up, if they ended up anywhere at all. Another reason is that many common Egyptians make most, if not all of their purchases in cash, having neither credit cards nor a bank account. Hence, many products in Egypt are sold in markets, and there are also not many chain operations. Therefore, many products are made by hand and there is little need to make them uniform. One simply walks into a market and purchases what is on the shelves. Frequently, no two handmade products are even remotely alike. In fact, the idea of making various handmade products the same almost seems somewhat alien to many suppliers.
Initially, the plan was to house the inventory for the Virtual Khan el-Khalili in Atlanta at the premises of our Egyptian partner's operation in the US. As items came in, we would be sent samples to photograph for the online store. Soon, these samples began to arrive, and we busied ourselves putting the products in our shopping cart software. However, it took little time to discover that we were facing the same problems as before. For example, a perfume bottle with a specific stock number would be photographed and placed on line, but as it turned out, the only thing that it would have in common with the remainder of the stock with the same stock number in Atlanta was its size. The color, design and even the shape of all the other items was different, but we initially were unaware of this fact because we only saw the one sample.
This did not only apply to perfume bottles, but to just about every other handmade product in the initial inventory. This included just about everything made from glass, as well as items such as brass plates, which would be the same size for any particular stock number, but with different designs on their face. Hand painted papyrus, though having the same image, would be composed with different colors. Even manufactured products, such as vases ended up being a problem. Their design was subject to a limited production run, after which the design could no longer be obtained.
This all explains why we began to sell assorted groups of perfume bottles, and why, even now, one can find us offering on Ebay some of the unique items from our original inventory.
Really, I would have probably shut the store down once again, but I knew that our Egyptian partners were substantial and capable. They are smart people with good business sense who have built up several large companies in Egypt, and I understood that if anyone in Egypt could get it right, it would be them. I also knew that others tying to merchandise Egyptian products continued to experience these problems, that that we would have a competitive advantage if we could solve the problems.
So we yelled and we screamed, we argued and we demanded that for any stock number, the products should be the same shape, size, color and design. Emails flew through the internet with the same topic over and over again, until finally, I jumped on a plane and headed to Cairo. There, I spent most of my time cooped up in the offices of our Egyptian partners, going over every little detail of our product line. This was not as simple as setting out the standardization we required. We also had to visit various factories in order to track down suppliers who were capable of delivering quality products according to our specifications. But after several weeks, I departed Egypt leaving behind a large order that I felt confident would be delivered according to our requirements. In the process, we also changed the location of our inventory to our offices in Lubbock, Texas, where it, and the shipping process would be under our direct control. We also hired what has turned out to be a very good supervisor to oversee the Virtual Khan el-Khalili.
After almost a year of work, the efforts have paid off. What one sees on in the Virtual Khan el-Khalili is also in our inventory and available for immediate shipment.
When we first opened the online store, we had several broad requirements. First of all, everything in it had to be made in Egypt. This means that we do not, and never have offered Chinese knock-offs, for example, but it also means that we do not carry items from other regional countries, even though some of the products (such as those made in Turkey) are attractive. Secondly, we required from the very beginning, products of exceptional quality. For example, tourists frequently leave Egypt with mother-of-pearl products that have more plastic than real mother-of-pearl, but all such products we sell must be completely mother-of-pearl.
We were also not very interested in strictly souvenir items, though we have a few such products that people do purchase, so we keep them in stock. Mostly, what we have sought to carry on the store are fine, handmade (and some manufactured) Egyptian products and antiquity reproductions. In the first category, these items include products that are distinctly regional, such as handmade alabaster, perfume bottles, mother-of-pearl and leather items, but also some products that, though made in Egypt, do not look specifically Egypt. Such items include our extensive collection of the Asfour Crystal line.
Antiquity reproductions are a different matter. We currently carry statues and other antiquity reproductions produced by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Regrettably, some of these items are not as completely authentic as we would like, so we are attempting to find new artisans who can reproduce more accurately some of the statues and other antiquities. Most items currently online are fairly good reproductions, but we will be expanding these lines considerably over the coming year.
Papyrus is also a continuing problem. While all of our papyrus is true papyrus paper, and hand painted, we seek mostly in this artwork true reproductions of tomb and temple scenes, though this is not always the case. Sometimes this is not such a awful thing, because exact duplications of what are often damaged originals might not always look very good hanging in someone's house. Nevertheless, most of the new papyrus we expect to add over the coming year will be very, very close to the originals artwork of the ancient Egyptians.
We also wish to have your feedback. We have at various times added items to the Virtual Khan el-Khalili based upon customer requests, and will continue to do so in the future.
In fact, now that we have solved the basic supply problems, one may expect to see in the not-so-distant future some very unique items for sale on the Virtual Khan el-Khalili. It has always been our intention to offer unique, and relatively unique items such as our line of Lehnert and Landrock photographs, a personal favorite of mine. We will now, abate slowly and with care, be expanding our products in the store, so check back often for new items of an exceptional nature with the assurance that, if you see it on our pages, it is in stock and ready for shipment!