Secret Shopper is the brainchild of two wonderfully resourceful and enterprising expats Bushra Taimur and Hina. What started off as a favour to friends has now become a personal shopping phenomenon with a global clientele. Their offerings for the next season are typically diverse: iridescent blue miniauderies with sea life charms by Sophia Webster, various Valentino lace espardilles in macaroon shades, jewel hued Manolo Blahniks, fluro medusa Versace flip flops and of course an imperial Birkin as the proverbial cherry on the cake. They vow to hunt down your most coveted objects, and to bring all your fashion reveries to fruition right here in Pakistan. Afshan Shafi brings you an exclusive tete a tete with these well heeled wunderkinds and gets an insight into their individual tastes
Please tell us about what motivated you to start Secret Shopper? Do you have a background in fashion or was it a personal passion?
Bushra: Secret Shopper started almost four years ago when I was visiting Lahore. I was asked to help pick out a present from a store that had been defined as the only authentic designerwear store in the city, and was shocked and dismayed to see the over priced, counterfeit items available. I had to ultimately source the gift from London and that is when the seeds of Secret Shopper were sowed as a viableÂ option. Being extremely passionate about shopping and the latest trends, I reached out to my friend Hina who not only shared the same fervour but also lived in London. Initially, we started off small, procuring for only close friends and family. At that point, we couldnâ€™t even fathom that the idea would catch so much attention and blossom into a blustering business. It made sense though, instead of paying good money for fake items that hold no value, why wouldnâ€™t anyone want the ease and convenience of their favourite designerâ€™s authentic goods being delivered to their doorstep, and that too in Pakistan?
Hina has a great eye for trends and we were able to get several orders from just posting a few items on Facebook. Thatâ€™s when we both realized the potential of developing this into something big. Online shopping barely existed in Pakistan at this point and the concept of buying through Facebook was unheard of. We had very strident ethics from the start and our unintended promotion through word of mouth spread like wild fire and successfully positioned us high on the scales of trust and reliability. My business acumen from having worked as a banker for over a decade and Hinaâ€™s accountancy background helped in establishing the business on very professional standards from the start. This further aided in strengthening our reputation and before we knew it, we were delivering on a global basis. It has been a challenging journey, but it has definitely been an exciting one. Weâ€™ve come a long way since then and are very proud of our growing team, store presence and established brand reputation.
â€œItâ€™s a lot harder then you can imagine. With the elements of export/import in the equation, there are a lot of logistics that need to be managed and several parts cannot be controlled. We source goods from UK, USA and across Europe and deliver worldwide as well. Each country/region has its own dynamics with customs clearance and currency/payment management, so it really is a lot more complicated than simply buying from a store and posting to a clientâ€
Hina: I used to shop for my close family in Pakistan for designer and high end products, so I was quite familiar with the whole process. When Bushra approached me with the idea for Secret Shopper, I knew it had a lot of potential. We decided to materialize it by starting a personal shopper service for our friends and family and gradually, with all the feedback and word of mouth, it went places. I must say it wasnâ€™t an easy journey to change peopleâ€™s mind from buying things from stores to online shopping but with great teamwork, we have managed to make this venture successful.
What would people be surprised to know about the business of personal shopping?
B&H: Itâ€™s a lot harder then you can imagine. A lot of clients tell us they would love to have our jobs, and although we are very grateful for what we do, it is actually a lot of hard work. With the elements of export/import in the equation, there are a lot of logistics that need to be managed and several parts cannot be controlled. We source goods from UK, USA and across Europe and we deliver worldwide as well. Each country/region has its own dynamics with customs clearance and currency/payment management, so it really is a lot more complicated than simply buying from a store and posting to a client. Then of course there are the dynamics of dealing with lots of customers who demand individual attention. As all the items we sell are high value goods, there are a lot of expectations. Being personal shoppers, we have no control over manufacturing, so itâ€™s not always easy meeting high expectations.
Bushra with Sophia Webster
Personal shopping as a field is relatively new and really coming into its own. Retailers and designers had picked up on the importance of providing an individualized service to VIP clients, but this is now slowly filtering through to even high streetwear. Traditionally, concierge services were and still are, in a several cases, provided only for very high value goods and to a very select client base. Certain types of personal shoppers operate under the radar as they sell items that are not allowed to be sold by other businesses and these items sell at high mark ups.
We want to change all of this and give personal shopping its right value in the fashion industry. We believe every individual should be able to avail a customized service and benefit from its benefits. We want to ensure retailers and designers recognize the importance attached to this new form of selling, and thus are always actively speaking to a number of fashion industry leaders to create mutually beneficial relationships. At present, we are proud to be formally associated with four renowned retailers and four design houses, including the acclaimed Sophia Webster and Judith Leiber, and are working on adding many more to our panel. There are many further avenues that we wish to explore and we want to be pioneers in revolutionizing the shape of personal shopping.
Bushra & Hina at London Fashion Week
â€œA customer messaged me two years after her purchase for a refund. She demanded that her designer shoes had not shown wear as well as she had expected and after two years of use, the heel was now looking shoddy. Unfortunately, thereâ€™s no way we can help with an item used for two years except maybe advise a good cobbler but she demanded a full refund from usâ€
Are there any outlandish or humorous client stories?
B&H: Clients expect designerwear to be perfect in all aspects given they have spent so much money, so we deal with all sorts of issues on a daily basis. We take all issues very seriously no matter how outrageous the complaint as we understand that the purchase means significantly to the customer and always go the extra mile to help resolve the matter. However, sometimes matters do become humorous like the time when a customer messaged me two years after her purchase for a refund. She demanded that her designer shoes had not shown wear as well as she had expected and after two years of use, the heel was now looking shoddy. Unfortunately, thereâ€™s no way we can help with an item used for two years except maybe advise a good cobbler but she demanded a full refund from us.
How does the taste of clients from different countries vary? Are there any specific brands or designers to which customers from different regions are loyal?
B&H: Client tastes do tend to vary with the country. There are seasonal implications to begin with and buying spends also vary with currency differences. Countries with their own traditional clothing also show a higher preference to purchase accessories instead of designer clothing. Asian countries also show a higher preference for discounted items regardless of the season, as the customers from here are more price conscious and love a bargain. There is a more negative connotation associated with discounted goods or sales in the European market where customers are more wary about such purchases and prefer new season goods.
You always see the higher luxury European brands like Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton retain their pull on a global level. These brands produce collections that only cater to a specific income strata that most people aspire to reach and, hence, they remain brands of preference. However, local brands like Mulberry, for example, being a British brand is a lot more popular in England then the rest of the world. The Pakistani society, on the whole, is of course more familiar with older more recognized brands like Prada and Gucci but there is a definite increase in awareness with a lot of people now willing to experiment and try younger, newer brands like Sophia Webster, which became a huge craze last year and continues to gain popularity.
Bushra & Hina with Sophia Webster
â€œWe once organized a groomâ€™s entire wedding package that included his clothes, accessories, footwear at the events along with his new wardrobe. We were working on a very tight timeline and there was a lot to be done. However, miraculously it all went according to plan and everything was a perfect fit too. It was a real joy to see their wedding pictures and see how happy it made the new coupleâ€
How would you sum up the preferences and style of Pakistani women? Do you think there is a satisfying variety or is there a prevailing sense of similarity in what local customers desire?
B&H: We feel that thereâ€™s a great mix of all sorts of women in the Pakistani society. There are the very conscious clients who are committed to the latest trends and extremely keen to establish their own style; thus, they want only the very hard to find, exclusive and latest season items. Then, there are a large number of women who only want to wear what is popular and need guidance in finding their own style space. However, it is clearly evident that there is a growing number of empowered women who are in charge of their finances and able to make decisions. These women want to be able to follow latest trends (mostly local) and itâ€™s great to see that they are able to feel accomplished and look great. The Pakistani woman is now a very conscious consumer and she does not settle for less in fashion, whether its personal or borrowed style.
Which upcoming designers or niche brands do you see taking Pakistan by storm?
B&H: Pakistan is ready to take on the world and show that we are not behind in fashion. We foresee niche brands like Ralph & Russo setting standards high with customized and exclusive accessories and footwear. Aquazzura has been picking up steam since the last 15 months or so in the footwear arena internationally and this trend will now start showing in Pakistan, especially with their Wild Thing Sandals that were sold out previously but has now been restocked globally. For clothing and the cheaper end of the market, brands like Kenzo are increasing in popularity.
Most cherished possessions
Bushra: This would have to be a pair of small earrings I bought my grandmother from my first pay cheque more than a decade ago. She wore them frequently and when she passed away, she left them for me. They remind me of her and the loving bond we shared.
Hina: My most cherished item is my great grandmotherâ€™s necklace that has been passed down in my family and was given to me two years ago to wear on my wedding day.
Bushra with Jimmy Choo
â€œWe recently set up our first ever personal shopping kiosk in Islamabad, partnered with Ensemble. Customers can now walk into one of the leading multi brand stores in Pakistan and complete their entire look by pairing outfits with the perfect shoes, bag and accessories. They will have an unlimited option of items to choose from and a personal shopper to help them perfectly put it all together.
For the latter part of the year, we have a very special event planned for Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad with the trunk show of an internationally renowned design house. Customers will be able to experience the very best of designer accessories in person and place ordersâ€
Are there any pleasant memories associated with some of your items? Please elaborate
Bushra: We once organized a groomâ€™s entire wedding package that included his clothes, accessories, footwear at the events along with his new wardrobe. We were working on a very tight timeline and there was a lot to be done. However, miraculously it all went according to plan and everything was a perfect fit too. It was a real joy to see their wedding pictures and see how happy it made the new couple. All the items we bought for them were really special for us because we knew the importance attached to them.
Hina: I completely agree with Bushra on this as it was a mission to get everything done in a limited time period especially buying the groomâ€™s suit and shoes for his reception and also ensuring they were delivered on time to them without any hiccups. It brings us great pleasure and comfort when we see our customers looking so confident and pleased on the social media wearing goods bought through us.
How would you define your personal taste? Which design houses do you think mirror your own aesthetic?
Bushra: My personal style is all about comfort and feeling good about myself. I like to keep things elegant, minimal and on straight lines. I do enjoy adding a bit of fun and colour to my wardrobe but donâ€™t think I get too experimental. I would like to say that Lebanese designer Ellie Saab mirrors my aesthetic. I love that he uses simple designs to create fairytale pieces full of beautiful embroideries, jewels, sequence and lots of fine details. Given my roots, I have a strong calling for all things with intricate workmanship and truly appreciate his work. His latest collections have been a bit more hip with a younger look and I love that he is now broadening his reach. Either way, I simply adore his elegant creations and feel he truly knows how to make a woman feel special as thatâ€™s all itâ€™s about when you get dressed.
Hina: My personal style is a mix of comfort and elegance. I love wearing high street brands like Reiss and Massimo Dutti and then complementing my attire with exquisite jewellery pieces. I am a big fan of Chanelâ€™s accessories as they are both classy and seasonal .
Whose wardrobe would you love to help shop for?
Bushra: I would love to shop for Kendal Jenner. She has an amazing street style thatâ€™s super chic and fresh. Moreover, she knows how to carry herself with a lot of confidence. It would be really fun to experiment with her, plus the publicity wonâ€™t hurt either.
Hina: I would love to shop for Kate Middleton. She is very beautiful and everything she wears looks amazing on her. She has a perfect dress sense by mixing the high street brands with luxury designers.
What would your personal wish list look like?
Bushra: I think my personal wish list changes every day. Currently, Iâ€™m on the look for some decent maternity wear, there seems to be a real dearth in the market. Iâ€™m also always on the lookout for the perfect day bag and shoes. Daily essentials must always be upgraded frequently to keep things fresh and fun.
Hina: My personal wish list is never ending since I have a craze for buying shoes and accessories and Iâ€™mÂ Â constantly adding to my collection.
What is your most favorite place to shop in the world and why?
Bushra: I would have to be loyal to London as we know the city so well and have established a great network here. Hina: My favorite place is Paris as some brands like Hermes, Chanel and Louis Vuitton have their best collections in their Paris flagship stores, which are completely different from everywhere else in the world.Â
What are your future plans for Secret Shopper?
B&H: We have lots of exciting plans for the future. This will be the year that we truly establish ourself as the company we have become and make our mark as pioneers, developing the new face of personal shopping. We recently set up our first ever personal shopping kiosk in Islamabad, partnered with Ensemble. Customers can now walk into one of the leading multi brand stores in Pakistan and complete their entire look by pairing outfits with the perfect shoes, bag and accessories. They will have an unlimited option of items to choose from and a personal shopper to help them perfectly put it all together.
We are now also all set to launch the very first of its kind website for personal shopping and are finalizing minor details currently. This is an entirely new form of customized shopping and we are very proud that there is no other website like this. We are also further growing our team and will soon be announcing the addition of a celebrity stylist to Secret Shopper. Members will now have the option to have their very own stylist at hand to give professional advice on buys specifically catered to their body types and preferences.
For the latter part of the year, we have a very special event planned for Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad with the trunk show of an internationally renowned design house. Customers will be able to experience the very best of designer accessories in person and place orders. So stay tuned for this announcement.
We have many other plans in the pipeline, so I would definitely say that if you are into designerwear and enjoy shopping, then weâ€™re a company to watch out for!