Against a backdrop of badly shaken consumer confidence in the West, the UAE continues to look an attractive prospect for international retailers and brands to set up shop.
But a panel of UAE retail heavyweights on day one of the Dubai real estate showcase, CityScape Global, said the market is being held back by a number of issues.
“The customer is learning faster than we are adapting as retailers. We are not yet, in terms of customer service and technology, meeting the customer’s expectations,” said Adel Hamden, general manager of leading Gulf luxury retailer the Paris Gallery Group, which has stores in prime locations such as Dubai Mall.
Staff turnover is another stumbling block for retailers looking to make a mark in an increasingly crowded UAE market place.
“To get growth from markets like UAE you have to invest much more in retaining people and developing them because a good person on the floor is going to make the difference between single and double [digit] sales. This is not a real priority for a lot of retailers,” added Hamden.
Mohammed Al Madini, chairman of the Al Madini Group, said Dubai retailers have paid the price for not studying their own market.
“One thing we have learned now is that we need to do more analysis. We are looking more into the customer’s behaviour because their appetite has changed,” he said.
The UAE has long been held up as a market crazy for mobile phones - just this week Etisalat announced futuristic high-speed 4G mobile data services. But retailers are not trying new ways to reach gadget-savvy customers.
“You don’t know when you are shopping for something how to find the information easily - you go on the website and there’s no information about selection or price,” said Hamden.
In Europe stores are using iPhone apps to tell customers what is in stock in every store.
“We are just not taking advantage,” said Hamden. “People are just browsing while using their phones and we are not there as retailers. We have to be there.”
The panel at yesterday’s event testified to the cut-throat nature of the retail business in the UAE. Several speakers said that this ultra-competitive mindset extended to sharing information that could be mutually beneficial.
It’s a practice that is frustrating malls too, if one developer in the audience is typical of his peers.
“You keep holding this [information] as secrets and expect us to develop as professionals and to cater to your needs and expectations without giving all that information,” he said.
It emerged during the discussion that market research firm Neilsen had been on course to track sales trends, but the initiative collapsed after a major retailer dropped out.
It is clear that new ideas need to be embraced if retail is to keep those cash registers ringing.