When Khalid Al Tayer is asked if he thinks that his new store is of a significantly higher quality than its competitors in Kuwait City, such as Harvey Nichols and Debenhams, he simply says “it’s Bloomingdale’s, let’s just leave it at that,” as he smiles.
Al Tayer, the CEO of Al Tayer Insignia, the family empire’s retail and luxury division, was speaking in an interview at the launch of Bloomingdale’s latest foray into the Middle Eastern market, a 93,000 square feet luxury department store in the heart of Kuwait.
It is only the second time the iconic New York store has opened its doors outside of the US, the first was in Dubai Mall nearly eight years ago.
“We’ve spent a long time thinking about it, and designing it, and improving it, and the journey was close to 4 years, from getting the opportunity to opening the doors,” says Al Tayer.
At first glance, Kuwait seems like perhaps a strange choice for a high-end department store housing the likes of Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Bottega Veneta. It lacks both the gloss of Dubai, and its number of wealthy visitors.
Scratch beneath the surface, however, and the story is very different indeed.
“Kuwait has always been such an important part of the Arab world. What’s really interesting for me, as I’ve seen it growing up, is that it has always been the cultural capital of the region,” says Al Tayer.
He argues that as a result, the Kuwaiti customer is arguably the most sophisticated in terms of their global awareness.
“They’re very trendy, very knowledgeable about the world of fashion and always very fashion forward. It’s a really sophisticated, well-traveled clientele,” he adds.
And that last bit about travel was part of the problem. Internal research conducted by Al Tayer suggested that as much as 50 per cent of the money Kuwaitis spend on luxury goods takes place abroad.
Next best place
As such, Al Tayer points out, “it was very logical for us to seriously consider an opportunity to have a Bloomingdale’s in Kuwait, and it felt like a natural extension, after the Dubai store, that Kuwait is really the next best place for Bloomingdale’s to grow to in the Middle East.”
And that opportunity came some four years ago, when local developer Tamdeen came to Al Tayer with an offer too good to refuse.
“Tamdeen allowed us to make adjustments to some of the mall design and existing structure, and to the tenants, in order for us to launch Bloomingdale’s here,” he said.
The CEO, who hails from one of the UAE’s most prominent business families, described his organisation’s working relationship with Tamdeen as “great, and really creative”, collaborating to “offer a department store that is tailor made for the Kuwaiti customer, that compliments the mall, and doesn’t compete with it.”
It is clear that this kind of deep cooperation is Al Tayer’s preferred mode of doing business.
At several points throughout the interview, he describes the “latitude” that his company was given by Bloomingdale’s to “do what we wanted”.
“It was because of the relationship between us, Bloomingdale’s, and Tamdeen, that we’ve been able to create, what we’ve coined internally, the ‘Jewel of the Middle East’ when it comes to retail and luxury,” he says.
When we talk about the next Bloomingdale’s store that will open in Abu Dhabi in early 2019 at the mega-development Al Maryah Central, Al Tayer comments on “working jointly on the mall design” with partner Gulf Related.
“Not only did we work collaboratively on the designs, but we worked on the merchandising strategy of the department stores to complement the strategy of the mall itself. I believe that’s the way to go. When you have stakeholders working together, having the time to go through this creative journey, its so fundamental,” he said.
In Kuwait, the store has been specifically designed to cater to the VIP’s of the country, and to the shoppers who like to make a day out their trip to the mall.
One of the things that’s interesting about the department store industry, he tells me, is that “you have to be locally relevant”.
“You have to be of an international standard, but locally relevant,” says Al Tayer.
In an attempt to be locally relevant, Al Tayer and his team have travelled around the world to find the most current trends in luxury shopping, and in turn implemented them at Bloomingdale’s in Kuwait.
Private selling rooms, stylist guides, VIP services, and skin testing rooms that border on the scientific, are just some of the facilities that Al Tayer believes will be a hit with the local market.
“We understand some of the nuances of this market and the customer, so we try to layer that in as well,” he says.
When Al Tayer is asked about potential candidates for a new luxury shopping destination, he responds in his typically pragmatic yet amusing style.
“When you look at the primary GCC cities, they’re all different flavours of the same ice cream. They all have very sophisticated customer bases, they have great opportunities commercial for the luxury retail market, and so we consider all these cities as important.”
Millennials and technology
So he’s keeping his options open?
“Yes. We want to bring flagship shopping experiences to key destinations.”
The conversation inevitably turns to millennials and technology.
Al Tayer says that millennial customers are looking for something interesting — “it’s all about experiences and discovery. That’s what Bloomingdale’s and Al Tayer believe in, and that’s what Tamdeen quickly embraced when we started working with them.”
Bloomingdale’s does not currently have an eCommerce platform, although Al Tayer is quick to point out that his retail group already has several online offerings.
“We’ve embraced digital as part of our strategy. In fact we are eCommerce capable. We already have eCommerce solutions that are up and running. We’ve taken pioneering steps to create eCommerce solutions, and that will, in time, weave in to the Bloomingdale’s experience,” he says.
When asked to elaborate on the time frame last point, Al Tayer says “we are looking at launching eCommerce capabilities and omnichannel capabilities for Bloomingdale’s in due course. We believe that eCommerce has to be part of the offer that today’s customers expect, and we’re working towards doing that for Bloomingdale’s.”
As for Al Maryah Central, the $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion), 2.8 million square feet mall in the UAE’s capital that will feature a new Bloomingdale’s (the biggest yet), and the first Macy’s outside of the US, Al Tayer says he “walked the site last week, and it looks phenomenal”.
“I believe that it will be the primary retail experience in the city of Abu Dhabi,” he adds.
When Macy’s opens its doors, it will be the second time in less than a decade that Al Tayer has been the chosen partner for an iconic American brand’s expansion to the Middle East.