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Fashion retailing in Hamra

Tourism and sales are down for retailers in the hip West Beirut neighborhood, prompting retailers to look local

by Laurence Leigh

The plethora of signs advertising ‘up to 70%’ discounts illustrates the sorry state of most clothing stores in Hamra. Gone are the rich tourists from the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Egypt with a desire to stock up on the latest fashions in the area’s crowded streets and alleyways. With the number of foreign visitors very low and well to do Lebanese worried more than ever about the country’s political instability, conflicts in the region and their own uncertain future prospects, high spending customers have all but disappeared. As the owner of one independent men’s outfitter, which opened before the Civil War, said, “Since the January clashes between Hezbollah and Israel, business is the worst I have ever seen.” In different circumstances, the decline in the value of the euro and the recent removal of import tariffs on clothes sourced in the EU might have helped. In the current situation, however, these factors have made little difference. It is perhaps only the benefit that many independent retailers receive from having rent controls on their stores or from having purchased their space outright when real estate prices were much lower than now that keeps them from going out of business altogether.

‘Fast fashion’ stores, such as Vero Moda and Jack and Jones, have not escaped the downturn either, even if their well known store brands have helped them compete successfully against the independent vendors who buy clothing with labels that are generally lesser known. Tight inventory control through using sophisticated supply chain management has also enabled them to avoid frequent discounting. Keeping up with the latest fashion trends also helps. Floral prints and an eclectic look inspired by the iconic Memphis furniture designs from Italy are also on show. Denim that has been carefully distressed and artfully decorated with tears and worn out patches to achieve the latest punk look is on display everywhere. Indeed, it seems that now no young woman, or young man for that matter, is to be seen wearing any jeans that look — perish the thought — new!

Catering local

Like the best of the independent retailers, clothing chains are also trying to keep customers coming back, through excellent customer service and responsiveness to their individual tastes. Nevertheless, the performance of the big groups’ Hamra stores is generally poor compared to their outlets elsewhere in Beirut. Whereas six years ago these shops had sales which were among the best in Lebanon, it is likely that groups with multiple outlets in the area will close some stores to consolidate their business. As one branch manager explained, limited and expensive parking along with general traffic congestion — made even worse by continuing construction work, including the massive expansion of AUB Medical Center — have caused many customers in cars to shun the area. Many of these people now prefer going to malls with ample parking such as Beirut Souks, ABC Mall in Ashrafieh, City Mall and Beirut City Center which, despite its name, is located in Hazmieh. The opening of the ABC Verdun shopping mall, which is currently under construction, will only exacerbate the retreat of motorized shoppers from the area.

As a result, activity in Hamra increasingly revolves around the local student population from LAU and AUB, which has fueled its active bar and restaurant scene. Catering to this group has also fostered a small but growing creative atmosphere with small atelier outlets springing up which offer unusual funky clothing and accessory designs aimed at their young customers. However, while these stores cater to an interesting niche market for original ‘boho chic’ and even pure kitsch, their contribution to the overall performance of fashion retail in the area is currently relatively small. Expensive, luxury lines in accessories such as jewelry and handbags, as well as iconic clothing labels such as Armani, Dior and Celine, are only to be found downtown, where the up-market Aishti department store is also located.

Looking forward, there is little sign that much change will take place in current trends. Even if lots of wealthy tourists from the Middle East and elsewhere return to Beirut, the concentration of designer boutiques and high priced jewelry stores in downtown shopping areas closer to luxury hotels, such as the Four Seasons and Phoenicia, is likely to continue. By contrast, Hamra is likely to be the playground of less well heeled students and young people cruising its bars and eateries. Successful retailers will only survive by offering affordable styles that will appeal to their different and fast changing tastes in what is going to be a more diverse, creative and interesting market place. Indeed, the thought that Hamra is set to become the ‘rive gauche’ of Beirut is not entirely fanciful.

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Laurence Leigh

Laurence Leigh is a professor at the Olayan School of Business at the AUB

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