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Winter 2009 Inside Dubai’s Specialty Leasing Scene

Festival City

Renowned for its sand, sun and shopping, Dubai City is the most-populous city in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, a thriving, multiethnic cultural metropolis that caters to the upscale tourist as no other city does.

Often called “The shopping capital of the Middle East,” the city has attracted the world’s attention because of its “build it and they will come” attitude, which includes the world’s tallest hotel (Burj Al Arab), the world’s first indoor mall ski slope (the Mall of Emirates) and the first manmade archipelago commercial developments (Palm Islands and The World, with more in the works).

In a city where everything is over the top, shopping is more than a pastime-it’s an Olympic sport! The shopping centers radiate here with the entrepreneurial spirit of merchants bursting with extravagant concepts and imaginative product introductions presented in new ways.

A visit to Dubai Festival City, opened in 2007 near the Dubai International Airport, was the highlight of our trip in mid-December (my husband, Matt, accompanied me). A sophisticated mixed-use complex on a historic waterfront that spans 1,600 acres, Festival City offers a rich and vibrant living, shopping, dining, entertainment and residential experience.

Owned by The Al Futtaim Real Estate Group, when fully completed (some sections are still in development) the project will include 550 shops and services, 90 restaurants and cafes, a 12-screen cinema complex and 20 international flagship stores including IKEA, a hypermarket and a power center all in one complex.

The specialty retail merchant program in the Festival City Centre retail area includes 52 indoor carts, 20 outdoor carts, 30 tenant-owned carts and kiosks, 20 promotional carts, and a sponsorship opportunities and media advertising banner program.

Specialty Retail Leasing Manager Marta Bural, an ex-patriot from Poland and Assistant Manager Mark Adams, an ex-patriot from Australia, guided my tour of one of the largest specialty retail programs in the emirate.

Highlights and best sellers

The top-performing merchant in Festival City Centre is Portfolio, which takes a customer’s original artwork or stock art, enlarges it to any size, prints it on canvas and frames it as a finished product. The lure of transforming one’s original art or photos into a life-sized wall hanging is very popular with customers.

Despite the intense and tight security throughout Dubai’s hotels and public places, another top producing concept at Festival Centre is La Cucina (Zwilling), which sells high-quality kitchen knives in boxed sets. This product is better known in the US by the name Henckel Knives and is one of the leading global manufacturers of reliable gourmet knives, gadgets, scissors and other household products. This concept could work in any shopping center, and it had multiple units in Festival City Centre.

In keeping with this city’s “gold rush/boomtown” image, several other concepts offered the ultimate status symbol for affluent customers: tech gadget bling. The height of fashion in this region is decorating one’s cell phone, laptop or other gadget so it reflects the unique personality of the owner. Two carts offered Swarovski crystals for cell phones, cameras and laptops. “Everything customized works best for us,” Bural said.

For a unique communications masterpiece, shoppers can give their phone or camera to a bead artist to customize a bejeweled look while the customer waits. Prices for SkinJam! adhesive crystals vary according to the size of the phone and the level of decoration the customer wants. SkinJam! is available at malls throughout the UAE or online (see article resources). Again, customization of products in the common area is a big success story in Dubai, as in the US.

Music is a significant part of every culture and combining music and live entertainment on a cart is both a novel idea and a visual success story. The operator of the Sadek Music Centre cart serenades customers as he sells guitars and drums. With its entertainment value, this concept offers a unique product and inviting music in multiple locations within Festival City Centre.

A concept called Fighter Pilot gives new meaning to the model airplane kits of yesteryear. This concept not only sells expensive finished model airplanes, but customers can also buy build-it-yourself kits. Some of the pricier models are 1,000 dirham (the UAE currency), or approximately $300.

The camel, known in the Middle East as “the ship of the desert,” was the primary mode of transportation for Bedouin nomads and a main source of milk, meat and wool. Festival City Centre capitalizes on the camel’s symbolic importance as a tourist souvenir with a new twist on a plush toy concept by simply showcasing plush camels. This crowd pleaser organizes camels in like-shapes, sizes and colors for a clean, uniform display that draws a lot of tourists buying for children.

Among the signs of a city whose primary economic engine is real estate, several sophisticated, static custom-designed real estate kiosks are strategically placed throughout the property, publicizing condominiums, waterfront town homes and commercial real estate opportunities. Manned kiosks with real estate uses include The Fairmont Heritage Place, a traditional kiosk showing architectural models of properties under development.

In addition to real estate displays, banners and floor stickers at escalator landings advertise upcoming concerts and special events at Festival City Centre-all additional alternative revenue streams for the property. One last unusual use of common-area space: The Centre’s foyer is outfitted as a concierge lounge for guests awaiting transportation by Tameer Malls LLC, another shopping center developer.

Several more concepts are worth mentioning not necessarily because the products are unique but because they are concepts beautifully executed with wit, charm and interactive customer sampling. These concepts include (see photos at bottom): flip flops, imported blankets and shawls, bulk candy and nuts, locally made olive-oil-based soaps, a build-your-own-bag concept, and a tea cart selling fresh bulk teas and the latest brewing equipment.

Jewelry, often a top-selling specialty retail category in the US, is visibly absent from the common area here. Although Dubai is also known as “The jewelry capital of the world,” the jewelry business here is left to permanent retailers, mainly because quality jewelry is readily available-not only through permanent mall tenants but also in numerous gold markets, or souks, found throughout the city.

Interestingly, there is an absence of tenants we know in the US as “national retailers.” In fact, the only recognizable international name is a delightful Famous Amos cart selling cookies and prepackaged foods. According to Ms. Bural, “There are no US retailers operating here” other than Famous Amos.

Setting the holiday season apart from the competition is an important goal for Bural. Perhaps unexpectedly, in a predominately Muslim country Bural has designed and leased an indoor/outdoor “Christmas Market” intended, she said, “To be brimming with traditional holiday gifts right down to roasted chestnuts, in the heart of the Centre.”

There she hosts guests, especially international visitors, who experience traditional holiday fair from more than 20 temporary units clustered in a center-court-like location. An ice rink located on the marina promenade nearby offers customers a chance to ice skate in the desert surrounded by a traditional Christmas tree and school choirs who perform on a daily basis. It’s a truly unique experience for Festival City Centre visitors.

Mouse over images below to view.

Beyond Festival City

A visit to Dubai would be incomplete without stops at the new Dubai Mall and the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, each with its own unique common-area specialty retail program.

Dubai Mall, the flagship development of Emaar Properties, is set apart from other centers in the area in that it contains the Dubai Aquarium, the Discovery Center, an Olympic-size ice rink and a gold souk brimming with more than 200 jewelry retailers.

Dubai Mall is the largest and most luxurious center in Dubai City, (with another 1,2000 retail outlets set to open soon) housing the finest worldwide brands. This center has many of the same temporary merchants as Festival City Centre, along with a unique common-area display posing Porsche as the fashion link between automotive and retail.

Moving on to The Souk Madinat Jumeirah, imagine the most colorful and vibrant markets of an Arabian city. Souks are the real heart of Arabia. Many of the malls in Dubai have tried to artificially create the souk-the infamous labyrinth of stores filled with pottery, spices, gold and silk offered by textile merchants and traders from Iran, India, Egypt and the east coast countries of Africa.

After following a maze of pathways that lead visitors through an artificially created bazaar, in time one discovers the ultimate in “products of the sea” including beads, seashells and sheesha water pipe smoking apparatuses! Here, stall market merchants and pushcarts frame the souk “streets” and retail souvenirs spill into the walkways.

If you want to experience a 21st Century, multicultural city that revolves around shopping, now is a great time to visit Dubai! In the months of January and February, Dubai hosts its famous Shopping Festival. The annual extravaganza draws people from all over the world to take advantage of the incredible deals-often 50 to 70 percent off. Dubai retail marketers have made this period more important by surrounding it with other events that make the first quarter of 2009 an important retail selling season in Dubai.

Bon Voyage!

Duffy C. Weir

Duffy Weir is the former vice president and director of specialty retail and marketing at The Rouse Company of Columbia, MD. Now an independent retail marketing and sponsorship consultant and writer, Weir travels the world searching for what she says "makes marketplaces tick." She can be reached at or 410.252.8885.

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