Life is tough for Lebanese designers. Despite unreliable spending and tourist numbers in a contracting economy, retail rents per square meter per year range from $400-$2,000 in malls, and are totally unregulated elsewhere. Multi-brand stores are reluctant to support local names, and even established retailers rely on holiday seasons to boost slack sales. This makes setting up shop a daunting prospect for small local businesses that need to boost their brand presence and client bases while running on minimal staff and overheads.
Some brands are therefore operating ‘limited edition’ or seasonal stores, which are as blink-and-you’ll-miss-them as Lebanese profit margins themselves. They are inspired by the trend in America and Europe for ‘pop-up shops’, which in some cities have become ubiquitous in their popularity. Opening sometimes for days or even hours, these stores offer unique products and experiences, from Hermès pitching its scarves and swimwear to summer crowds in the Hamptons, to ‘Alcoholic Architecture’ by Bombas & Parr, which filled a venue in London with vaporized gin and tonic. Brands love the marketing buzz and sales hike — qualities that are exceptionably valuable to Lebanese designers struggling for a foothold.
“It’s not that sales increase twofold during the holiday period like Christmas and August, it’s that they increase seven to eight times,” says Nayla Assaf, whose casual contemporary clothing line En Ville has been selling wholesale to multi-brand stores in Beirut and Amman from a studio in Ain El Mreisseh since early 2010. She convinced Solidere to let her and six other brands take over a line of empty shops in the Souks for six weeks over Christmas and the New Year.
“At this point in time it did not make sense for me to open a permanent shop,” says Assaf. “So I wanted to tap into that holiday buzz and holiday crowd… by choosing a really prime location with lots of tourists.” Unlike other locations that were overpriced and whose owners were reluctant to draft temporary contracts, Solidere listened to Assaf’s case that “we’re entrepreneurs, we’re Lebanese, those shops are empty… but equally we’re going to bring people. We have our own mailing lists, we have our own contacts.”
For a “symbolic” rent, these retailers could test the location and market, meet new clients and boost sales. Compared to her sales for the same period the previous year, Assaf scored an increase of around 150 percent, offset by incidental expenses like staff, décor, packaging and the DJs and catering that were an essential part of the “buzz”. Two of the pop-ups — jewellery designers Joanna Laura Constantine and Smartiz handbags and accessories — decided to extend their contracts on the site across Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Joanna Laura Constantine, 90 percent of whose customers are in the United States, says that “the potential of the market in the Middle East had low expectations for me until I opened the pop-up store,” which exceeded her predictions “20 times over”.
Elsewhere, Rouba Mortada’s paper products and homeware brand Choux à la Crème sells in a few local outlets, in Monocle stores worldwide and at Liberty in London, but she is not ready to commit to a Beirut boutique of her own. Instead, she opened her fourth-floor Clemenceau design studio to the public for two weeks in December, selling her standard and Christmas collections with special packaging and snacks on offer. A couple of posters and a Facebook group advertised “for two weeks only” and “limited edition pretty things”, generating 22 percent of her annual turnover. Simply, Mortada says, “it makes more sense and more money for me to sell on my own,” and the use-by date on a retail space can intensify this advantage. “It’s a whole experience,” says luxury brand consultant Marie-Noelle Azar from the agency Whyte Mulberry. “You’re selling them the product that they might not necessarily need but… because they know that in a week you won’t have it, they need to buy it now.” Mortada sees this potential as unexplored by established Lebanese brands: “One of the frustrations about Beirut is that it tends to run in the same circles… so I wouldn’t be surprised by any of the creatives doing a pop-up shop here.”
For Nour Sabbagh and Nur Kaoukji, their ‘Beirut Loves’ pop-up experience is an end in itself rather than a test run or a boost to an existing brand, opening for 15 days a year and focusing on products from a different country each time, starting in 2011 with ‘Beirut Loves Jaipur’.
“We both knew that we wanted something ephemeral, something that was a store and an event mixed into one,” says Kaoukji. “We imagine the store to be a kind of suitcase, something exciting we bring back from our travels.” They, too, scored a deal on a Downtown location. “People were initially surprised that we were only going to be present for 15 days, but that factor pulled them back. We received a lot of client’s details who were keen to be notified about our next pop-up.” For them, consumers are in a mood to be seduced by such projects. “One can sense their longing for this personal connection and we believe that this is going to affect businesses in the long run, the trend of the ‘one off’ or the handmade is growing stronger.”
Azar sees the pop-up trend in Beirut as an underdeveloped tool that, done properly, can bring together the best in online media, marketing and creative sales. “In terms of maturity… it’s still who you know that’s going to come and who you know that’s going to buy, it’s not commercial,” she says. “When pop-up stores started in Europe and the US they started in the main street where they know that they have traffic and they know that if they get the right product to this traffic they’re going to sell — you don’t have that here.” In an environment that lacks syndication, low-cost retail space or a healthy market for carefully crafted, locally branded goods, entrepreneurial artisans have always relied on exhibitions and exhibits to spread the word about their work; pop-up stores work on the same principle but with significantly more business benefits.
And when the store itself is the must-have limited-edition accessory, the possibilities are endless. Sara Darwiche at Chouchic.com, an invitation-only online boutique for the Middle East that deals in luxury labels, describes her marketing strategy as “a continuous virtual pop up store for a variety of high-end brands and trend setting styles [and] themes with a twist”.
Daily sales at noon are driven by membership and email alerts that cause “a daily flood of transactional traffic,” she says, for a “business model based on scarcity, selection and urgency,” where “hundreds of thousands of shoppers compete online for the limited inventory… we expect the majority of the ‘hot’ items to be sold within the first 10 minutes, with the bulk of sales occurring within the first 90 minutes.”
Attempting this sort of daily rush in the physical world, Hania Yaffawi from local multi-brand store Depeche Mode opened concept store 6:05 Downtown in January. Rather than spending money on traditional marketing, the store relies on the media and buzz generated by a daily cocktail hour with a DJ and weekly events with artists and musicians. If every day offers a unique or unusual experience, the theory goes, the clientele will be more diverse.
Big players in the industry are also waking up to the benefits of limited-edition, unusual events to hook customers. Retail rents at ABC Dbayeh might run at an estimated $1,000-$1,200 per square meter per year, but 205 square meters have been dedicated rent-free to temporary stalls for Lebanese designers for three months of 2012. The designers promote their wares in a new forum, and ABC benefits from corporate social responsibility brownie points, plus a percentage of the sales and publicity. As Azar says, it is a “win-win situation.”