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Revolution in retail

by Michael Karam

Lebanon’s retail sector has finally shaken off the effects of the war as it moves towards a modern shopping culture. The good news is that a new generation of shopping malls is getting it right, offering a modern retail experience in an equally modern retail environment, catering to both local shoppers and tourists.

This modern culture has not had an easy birth, having emerged from the retail chaos of the immediate post war years. Then, the downtown, historically the capital’s retail core was still rubble and the ad hoc shopping districts that emerged during the conflict – Verdun, Zalka and Kaslik – still thrived in the absence of a genuine retail hub and modern malls. There were shopping centers of a sort, built with the money of returning exiles. This haphazard approach to retail was doomed to fail. The developments were badly run, ill-designed with small shops, fitted with low quality specifications and with little or no thought given to tenant mix. This and a once-thriving market of pirated goods (now happily on the wane) was not an auspicious start to a sector that has the potential to contribute to $3.6 billion or 20% of GDP.

However since 2000, the renaissance of the BCD, new malls –such as the ABC in Ashrafieh and Dunes – and the emergence of supermarket chains have all transformed the sector and the way we shop. This mini revolution has been helped by the fact that many Lebanese have lived and traveled abroad almost guaranteeing a target rich environment for the international brands. Today, as Lebanon continues to fall in line with international retailing trends it is witnessing larger developments, more car-borne shopping and longer opening hours. This is creating increased competition as retailers place greater emphasis on location, access, customer flow, tenant mix, climate control, service accessibility and parking. “The new malls will see a repositioning of the retail landscape, which is currently defined as the high-street,” explained Mark Morris-Jones of Cushman and Wakefield Healey and Baker’s associate office in Beirut. “Those malls that are properly conceived, managed and well-let will succeed.”

Beirut and its suburbs are dotted with promise. Six major retail developments in Dora, Dbayeh, Sin el Fil, the BCD and Verdun will add nearly 200,000m2 of net retail space. The five do not include the 100,000m2 Souks in the BCD, which has been delayed for four years and does not look like it will be built any time soon. However, local retailers believe that this increased supply will meet the demands of Lebanon’s retailers who insist on modern retail space. “The trouble is that today we just can’t find the right location for our premises,” said Admic chairman Michel Abchee. “The new projects are responding to this demand. If anyone is going to suffer it is the previous generation of retail developments.” It was a painful lesson to learn for those who poured their money into badly conceived projects. “We must remember that much of the retail space in the first phase was sold and, therefore, lack the management and direction of a modern mall where space is rented,” said Morris-Jones, who added that developers with the long-term view will be the eventual winner as they should see growth in sales, which will lead to rental growth and then capital growth.

One of the most adventurous new projects is the Metropolitan mall in Sin el Fil. While many analysts believe that the Habtoor Group is throwing good money after bad, but Morris-Jones believes its might just work. “It is a lot smaller than the other malls coming on stream. It has less than 14,000m2 with a lot of restaurants and coffee shops,” he said. Analysts believe that the new ADMIC mall at Dora will help Sin El Fil’s customer draw, as it will be the first genuine hypermarket in Lebanon and will change shopping patterns in Beirut’s northern suburbs.

Area’s that are expected to make a significant comeback include Hamra, a traditional retail area with a proper commercial street and a residential base woven into its fabric. Verdun should also survive as long as it responds to the new challenges presented by the malls. “We need to see retailers’ associations providing street furniture, parking and safety features that will enhance streets and allow them to compete,” said Morris-Jones.

The downtown’s retail dynamic, once so full of promise, has stuttered due to the delay of the Souks project. In 2001, the development was touted as the single most important development in the BCD and a catalyst for foreign direct investment. With roughly 52,000m2 of retail space – including a 15,000m2 dept store and a 7,000m2 supermarket – it was estimated at the time that the Souks could achieve revenues of $270 million in its first year. International retailers – including Les Galleries Lafayette, Harvey Nichols and Printemps – showed genuine interest in leasing the department store while Spinneys also showed an interest in the supermarket plot. Today, political squabbling has thrown Solidere’s original retail blueprint out the window. Allenby and Foch were designed for upmarket brands but have had to absorb those “high-street” labels originally earmarked for the Souks. When the Souks open for business, retail analysts believe that the high-end shops will head to the BCD. “The expectation is that the price point of products offered in the Souks will be some way above those elsewhere and will serve the higher end market segment,” said Morris-Jones. “This will be an extension of the current trend where we have already seen some of those high end retailers drifting in from a number of outside destinations. There will however be an impact on those retailers operating outside the BCD in that they will take with them a chunk of total sales and this will see a reduction in rental levels elsewhere.” But what is selling? Currently women’s wear and restaurants are the most popular retail outlets with home accessories, footwear, jewelry and men’s wear in close pursuit. “There are some outstanding homegrown retailers in Lebanon, such as GS, Patchi, Kababji, Crepaway, Red Shoe, Pointure, Aziz, Ghia Holdings, Maison du Café and any number of the jewelry retailers and some of the boutiques,” said Morris-Jones. “This includes branded franchises from overseas, as well as some home grown operators. Quality will always show through and as long as a full range of stock is carried, which the good retailers do.”

Of the branded concepts – most under franchises – there are the big regional operators such as Retail Group and Al Shaya. Virgin is also a good example of an operator going into and dominating a sector in a professional manner. Special mention must be made of the MaxiMa Group as they have taken brands to the region as a Lebanese company based in Lebanon.

The future is bright. Rental levels should come down and tighter contracts between tenants and mall owners should lead to a more professional performance by malls – including uniform opening hours etc. The Souks will eventually be the jewel in Lebanon’s retail crown and the final jigsaw in the BCD retail evolution, attracting tourists who will add shopping to their Lebanon agenda. Prices will drop, standards will rise and services will improve. Demand for leisure goods and fashion items will mean more international brands and bigger stores. Increased car borne shopping should lead to better facilities in malls in order to make the shopping experience more of a family day out and daycare and crèche facilities will become a must. There should be more specialist shops forcing out those who are unable to respond to the changes in the market and there will be a gradual move away from developing residential buildings with shops on the ground floor as retail hubs come into sharper focus. Finally, customer care service and better stock control will come about as a part of the sector’s natural evolutionary process. No longer will the Lebanese shopper be grateful for what is on offer. The shopper will have more of a choice and better redress.

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Michael Karam

Michael Karam is the author of Wines of Lebanon.

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