Since last year’s deadly July War, followed in December bythe opposition’s permanent protest movement, the recentsechaurity problems and the fighting in Nahr al-Bared,Lebanon has been the victim of a “series of unfortunateevents.” One of the many sectors to suffer from the burdenof insecurity is the Lebanese retail market, seemingly adinfinitum condemned to face challenge after challenge. Theposh Beirut Central District (BCD) and the notorious Beirutnightlife have taken a rd blow, as tenants, exclusiveinternational brands and hip eateries alike slowly witheraway, with most balance sheets and performance figures inthe red. Executive looks at the annus horribilis 2006/07from a retailer’s perspective.
By mid-July of last year the exceptional 2006 forecast of1.6 million tourists had slowly melted down as “precisionbombs” targeted Beirut’s suburbs and Lebanon’s southernregions. According to Marwan Mikhael, advisor to theminister of economy, the 6% growth figure predicted insteadmorphed into a gloomy -1% mark by the end of 2006. The levelof exports — up by 50% before the war — averaged 20% by theend of that year. Dovetailing the morose situation, yearlytourism figures fell by 6.8% in 2006, and even 17% comparedto 2004. “Imports, which are good indicators for sluggishdemand, only increased by 0.6%,” says Mikhael. Anotherlinchpin of retail economy, the CPI (consumer price index)increased by 7%.
Beirut Central District’s woes
The Beirut Central District, a Lebanese economic landmark,came timidly to life after the end of the war. Yet scores ofstores remained empty, with shoppers choosing to stick tosurroundings closer to home. “I believe however, that theBCD troubles have their roots in Solidere’s approach of along time ago. Since its inception, the BCD always had anextremely high turnover rate, with an average 70 businessesclosing down against 80 setting up shop in the area,” saysRaja Makarem of Ramco Real Estate Consultants. After thewar, the lethargic state of downtown affairs could also beattributed to its clientele demographic, as it is composedmainly of Arab tourists, who literally vanished while localsmigrated to areas such as Gemayzeh.
On the retail level, Nadim Matraji, owner of Gant stores,agrees that the situation resulting from the war is dour,confirming a 70% drop in activity, with the number of clientvisits falling to 50%. “Nonetheless, we were able to keepour loyal customers,” he adds. As for the Italian franchiseBenetton, its launch in Lebanon coincided exactly with thebeginning of the conflict. “The war and the blockade forcedus to close our stores for a month. As a result, themerchandise came in too late and the Back-to-School seasonwas simply cancelled, as the store’s middle and upper classclientele were fleeing the country,” says Walid Matta, thecompany’s GM. Dora Jurdy (Georgio Armani) relays a similaraccount: “During the course of the conflict, our stores wereclosed for a month, leading to a 70% fall in turnover, sincewe rely heavily on the Arab tourists.” At Paul & Shark salesplummeted by 70% with clients too scared to visit theoutlets, according to the company’s Grace Assaf. JamilDargham at Omega, estimates that his turnover decreased by50% after the war, the luxury brand’s Gulf clientele havingbecome an oddity. At Eden Park, owner Mazen Mussalimexplains that he was able to recover some of the 90% drop ofthe July and August sales figures, thanks to a client basemostly made up of Lebanese.
As if the July War had not been enough to curb dwindlingprofit margins, a few months later it was followed bymassive protests held in the BCD area. Paul Ariss, presidentof the Restaurants Syndicate, paints a gloomy picture ofthis period. “Up to 30 downtown eateries had closed downpermanently, 40 were waiting for better times to come, 15were opened only for lunch and another 15 for lunch anddinner.” According to Ariss, Solidere acknowledged the trendand lowered costs by 10-20%, while private real estate owners negotiated new paymentterms with tenants. As a result of downtown’s lockdown,expansion was noticeable in some areas such as Gemayzeh,Hamra, Verdun and Kaslik. “At the time, activity in Verdunprobably increased by 30 to 40% with Gemayzeh and the ABCMall in Ashrafieh having a greater share of the cake,” hesays.
The reshuffling of the business and shopping scene alsotranslated into the real estate sector with demand forretail space in downtown Beirut near its nadir. However, theoffice rental segment escaped the misfortunes befalling therest of downtown. “There is a shortage in office spaceavailable for rent, which makes meeting the demand ofinternational companies, mostly American and European aswell as NGOs, very difficult,” underlines Raja Makarem. Withsales prices remaining at $4,000 per square meter, he pointstoward the migration taking place in Beirut. Businesses moveaway from the BCD into other areas, namely Kaslik, Verdunand Hamra. “Many businesses, which had opted for await-and-see approach during the demonstrations, have nowdecided to permanently close their businesses even if thismeans loosing on investments they’d made. I guess that’s thegeneral feeling now,” says Makarem. The realtor alsobelieves that rental estimates are currently very difficultto assess in the BCD area, as demand is simply non-existent.
On the other hand, in other areas the demand for rentalspace remains surprisingly healthy. Ramco confirms at leastone weekly request for the Hamra area, mainly asked for byfranchises. “One has to keep in mind that, whatever thecountry’s general situation, Hamra remains a major businessdistrict, holding within its grounds four universities, morethan 200 businesses and many hospitals with thousands ofpeople flocking in every day,” says Ramco’s GuillaumeBoudisseau. Restaurants such as Tabkha, Noodles, and BuffaloSteak House have also decided to open soon in the area whererental prices reach as much as $650 per square meter.According to the real estate company, Verdun is also quitein demand, a trend slowed down, however, by the limitedsupply for prime outlets. “Franchises usually require groundlevel outlets, which explains why so many underground orfirst floors stores remain empty,” underlines Baudisseau.The real estate sector’s progress comes as a surprise giventhe current political and security problems. The Lebanesenewspaper L’Orient Le Jour even reported a 30% spike inproperty prices. “The trend can be attributed to the obvioustrust the Lebanese hold in their economy,” says Makarem.
Some retailers better off than others
Still, retailers’ accounts sway between desperation, hopeand fatigue. For Virgin’s marketing manager Joanne Karkour,2006 was the year of great hopes as 1.6 million touristswere expected to visit the land of the cedars. Whendemonstrators congregated in the heart of Beirut, theneighboring Opera store — the company’s flagship outletlocated in the BCD — had to close down for over two weeks.The fall in sales at that store was at least twice higherthan in other points-of-sale. “Compared to 2004, last year’ssales figures at Opera store plummeted by nearly 50%, whilein 2007 sales fell by an average of 55% compared to 2006,”says the executive. Another significant indicator, footfallfigures at the Opera store — which represent under normalcircumstances twice the ABC overall store’s — reached a mere30% in 2006. This indicator can be put in perspective whencompared to the size of the Opera store, which covers asurface of 3,500 square meters and, at normal times, has atotal sales share that is twice that of the ABC and CityMalls cumulated. “Thus, it is difficult for ABC and CityMall to cover the sale loss of the Opera store althoughtheir turnover was quite satisfactory last December,”Karkour explains.
For Matraji the recent events have translated into salestaking a 50% nose dive, as people avoid wandering away fromtheir places of residence. “The security-related events have put a hold on any future plans. We hadto postpone one big project as well as the introduction oftwo new brands,” complains the manager. According to Matta,Benetton’s Saida and Tripoli outlets have taken the hardestblow, principally in the southern city where the store islocated close to the Taamir area, which had seen unrest inrecent months. The GM acknowledges that although 50% ofcompany’s targets have not been met, two new stores arestill underway.
At Georgio Armani, the season that had started on thebright side was brutally brought to an end with the Nahral-Bared fighting and the bombs — the Emporio Armani storeis located on the street where the Verdun bombing occurred—, leading to a 90% loss in activity. “We had to reducemerchandising by half to adjust to the situation, as well asabandon the marketing campaign we had scheduled,” saysJurdy. Assaf indicates that Paul & Shark sales have beenplummeting by 60%. At Omega the recent events have inducedan 80% decrease in sales. Robert Sayegh, owner of the ABCMall’s Mont Blanc store, reckons a 50% decline in sales,accelerated by the recent bomb targeting a parking lotadjoining the mall.
Grace Sehnaoui, owner of international brand franchisesTod’s, Vilbrequin and Hogan, estimates turnover to havecollapsed to 25%. “People are afraid to visit the BCD whereour stores are located, although the area remains much saferthan any other thanks to heightened security measures,” shestates. The Nahr al-Bared battle and the bombings, inaddition to the effects of the war, have forced her torenegotiate quantities, a situation that might hinder thefranchise agreement on the long run.
Sehnaoui is a typical example of Lebanese resilience. “Asthe stores closed down for a month during the war, we movedour merchandise out to the storage house, and then literallyfollowed our clientele from one safe area to the other suchas Broummana, Faraya and Jounieh. That was a huge headachein terms of coordination! However, we had to mark down ourmerchandise to be able to sell it, which somewhat affectedsomewhat our image.”
On the other side of town, Eden Park sales shrank to 20%during the month of May and 50% in June. “This drop mightalso be attributed to the proximity of our store to the ABCAshrafieh Mall next to which a bomb went off,” saysMussalem. At ABC Mall, apparent target of the recent bombingspree going around Lebanon, damages were repaired rapidly,with stores going back to normal the next day. “We’ve notwitnessed any tenant migration. Quite the contrary — newstores such as Lee Wrangler, Style Express, and Starbucksare still scheduled to open,” says Tania Ezzedine. TheLebanese company, which is also expanding in Amman, iscurrently renovating its Dbayeh flagship store. “We’re notpostponing any local investment and did not loose hope inour homeland,” she concludes.
The Demonstration effect
Like in any other crisis, one man’s misery can makeanother’s fortune: during the demonstrations, shopping areasaround the country benefited from the deadlock, luring informer downtown clients who shunned away from the cloggedcity district. “Ashrafieh was the most popular destinationamong malls while the Hamra area also improved much,” saysRamco’s Raja Makarem. Real estate agent Raymond Barakatcorroborated this assessment. According to him, in Kaslikdemand for rental space picked up by 40 to 50% during thedemonstrations, as Kisrwan and Metn rode the wave with a 20%increase. Unfazed, Makarem pointed out, however, that demandin Kaslik predated the demonstrations, and was actuallybolstered by the regional presence of the Azadea Dahergroup.
In Verdun, Mazen Kharazallah, manager of 730 and 732shopping malls with over 100 stores, estimated the spike incirculation to have reached 90%, with peak activityoccurring mainly on the weekends. “At least two people wereinquiring about vacancies. As for tenants, their activityhad improved by as much as 65%.” As one might expect, agrowing demand combined with limited supply usually drivesprices up. According to Barakat, this was best illustratedin Kaslik where prices increased by 25%, as well as the Metnregion where the snowball effect reached 20%. In Beirut,Hamra also recorded rents moving up by 20%. “Prices inVerdun, already quite high, did not really increase asdemand was satisfied by empty outlets available for rent,”says Makarem.
Although shop owners seemed to be fleeing the BCD enmasse, the migration was not permanent. Makarem believesthat the trend can be reversed: many businesses formerlylocated in the BCD have spent an average $1000/square meteron renovation costs and were not really prepared to forgotheir leases. “However, since the Nahr al-Bared events, most of them are not willing to wait anylonger.”
On the larger retail and service industry scale,consequences of the downtown lockdown were experienceddifferently. The big winners were undoubtedly restaurantsand cafe chains, which could swiftly adapt to the migratingtrend. Whether in Verdun or at the ABC Mall, eateries werebustling with activity. Georges Helou, manager at Casper andGambini’s, confirmed rumors of the chain’s BCD venue closingdown, and in May announced the opening of a branch inVerdun. “We still enjoyed similar levels of visits for moststores. The City Mall venue and the whole mall sector onaverage were doing much better with turnover boosted by 25%since the last demonstrations, but I would not go as far asimplying a definite relation between the two events,”explains Helou.
Alain Maroun, manager at Pain Quotidien, witnessed asimilar growth in sales as new faces flocked to the smallVerdun café. “With a 70-80% spike in activity, we didextremely well during the week,” he says.
Lina’s, another chain famous for its ‘sandwicherie’culture, modified its strategy, following clients where theycould be found. According to Sami Hochar, Lina’s GM, salesat the BCD venue fell by 75% when demonstrations started,stabilizing later at a mere 45%. On the other hand, itsAshrafieh café boasted a 50% increase in sales, the one inHamra 28%, and the Dbayeh branch 7%. The newly-opened Verdunand Kaslik venues were also performing extremely well.“However, customer purchase behavior has been affected bythe prevailing situation with ticket prices per personloosing up to10% of their initial value,” indicates Hochar.
On the retail side, chain owners adopted a more negativestance as the sector showed contradictory results from onemarket segment and region to the other. Dany Hani, managerand owner of Maria Pino, underscored the negative impact ofwar and demonstrations causing activity to abate by anaverage of 50%. “Gulf tourists, who constitute 30 to 40% ofour client base, have avoided shopping in Lebanon. Toreverse the local trend, we have expanded of late in variousmarkets such as Riyadh, Kuwait, Jordan, Dubai, and the USA.”
Karim Saadeh, operation manager at Mario Bruni, said thatsales at its BCD outlet have dropped by 75% during thedemonstrations, while Kaslik witnessed an increase of 21%,and the Verdun store even reached 45%. In addition, thecompany beefed up its presence abroad, with stores incountries such as Jordan, KSA, Egypt, Syria, and Romania.
On the clothing retail level, the Azadea group, withinternational brands such as ZARA, Bershka, Pull & Bear,Oysho, Massimo Dutti, Mango, Promod, Pimkie, Extyn, MaxMara, Marella, Pennyblack and Columbus Café, admitted thatturnover had been affected by the permanent protests andblockade, its sales figures improving conversely in certainareas such as Verdun and Kaslik. “The number of foreignershas decreased tremendously but no major change has beenobserved in the purchase behavior of the local customers atthe time,” agreed Said Daher, the company’s general manager.
On the regional level however, the prevailing situationvaried significantly. In Kaslik, businesses seemed tooperate on the brighter side of life, as Bedik Sarsonian ofZinnia could attest to a 10% improvement in turnover. “Wehad our clientele in Verdun and the unstable situation hadnot really affected their purchase behavior, but we had topostpone opening our BCD store,” he says. CK Jeans storemanager Marwan Salameh pointed out that business improved byup 20% with customers increasingly avoiding Beirut. DarineMoradian of Legend announced a 10% raise in sales, a figuremirrored by Lina Chidiac for Virile.
At the ABC Mall in Ashrafieh, Jean Mansour of Houdoumexplained the 50% drop in sales. “Although the overall mallactivity improved significantly at the time, this did notmean that people were buying,” he said with a derisivesmile. Liberto store manager Evy Bassim agreed, estimating adecrease in turnover of 30%.
The situation in Hamra seemed even bleaker, although thebusy streets were jammed with cars until late hours. GhassanHabayla, the store manager at Saint Michel, estimated hisdecrease in sales to have reached 60%. Hussam Dana, ElDorado’s store manager, explained that he had to rescheduleopening hours and close at 9:30 p.m. instead of midnight.
In Verdun, testimonials conflicted as some stores sawtheir turnover follow a rising trend while others complainedof deteriorating profit margins. Youssef Kaaki, manager atJack & Jones, estimated increase in sales to 30%. Luxurygoods, however, seemed to take the hardest hit. Samer Rifai,manager at Amore, had to face activity dropping by up to100%. Lina Kabbara of Oilily, a children luxury brand,shares his grievances, which emphasize the harsh realitiesof a negative business environment resulting from thepolitical upheavals.