IS THERE ANYTHING MORE CONFUSING than selling in the Middle East? We don’t just mean because of wars and centuries-old animosities between countries. No, we are referring to the Islamic culture, religion, and tradition that control so much of life in this area, and which have to be understood if a business is going to successfully market here.
Not only is the Islamic culture often very foreign to the west, it is not even consistent within the borders of the Arab world. For example, women dress in a conservative western-like manner in some Islamic countries, while in others; they can’t go outside without wearing an abaya, a long black cloak that covers them completely from head to toe with just a small slit for the eyes to see.
Getting into business, things are even more confusing. “You have to have patience and partnerships,” declared Lily Arjomand, former general merchandise manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Dubai. “Even to do ads for Dolce & Gabbana in Dubai,” she says, “We had to put long sleeves on evening gowns and then get approval from the government to run them.”
In Dubai, you can show sleepwear and lingerie in store windows and in brochures. But in Saudi Arabia, a store can be closed for showing a mannequin of a female form or marketing images of women in store windows or brochures. In Dubai, women can sell lingerie. In Saudi Arabia, only men can sell lingerie, but they are not allowed to speak to women customers. Hmmm.
Thriving, Rich Market
SO, YOU MIGHT ASK, WHY would anyone bother to enter such a complicated market area? Because it is thriving, and because – believe it or not — women here spend enormous sums on designer apparel and accessories every year. “We’ve seen luxury business grow nearly 50 percent a year over the past three years,” declared Elisabeth Ponsolle des Portes, president of the French luxury goods association Comite Colbert, referring to the predominantly Arabic Mideast.
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Brands in general – and luxury brands in particular – are wildly popular in the Middle East. There is a sizeable population of very affluent oil people here who can easily afford luxury.
According to a survey by global management firm A.T. Kearny, the Middle East and North Africa offer the most dynamic retail growth opportunities. Kuwait was ranked second in the 2010 top 20 for retail development, while Saudi Arabia was fourth, United Arab Emirites was seventh, Tunisia was eleventh, and Egypt was twelveth.
WITH ALL THIS DEMAND, retailers still don’t have it easy. Governments, for example, frequently regulate hours of operation, and often require that stores close during prayer hours. One retailer rented a store with big windows, and when the Mutaween saw it they demanded that barriers be put up in front of the windows, so that people could not see anything sinful going on inside. Then, they said the barriers had to come down, because they couldn’t see what was going on inside the store! Frustrating, to say the least.
But despite all these problems, companies are rushing to set up business in the Middle East. Louboutin has a store in Jeddai, Saudi Arabia, and is opening two more in the region within the next couple of months. Hermes operates five stores in the region and plans on opening three more by 2012. Van Cleef & Arpels, which already has stores in Dubai, Bahrain, and Kuwait, is opening three more by early next year. Even Bloomingdales opened its first overseas operation in the Middle East this year.
Jim Quinn of Tiffany & Co. said the Middle East has been very important to the firm since 1995. That’s when the firm opened its first store in Bahrain. Beyond that, Tiffany has 20 stores operating in the greater area. “It’s a different culture and we have to understand local traditions and customs,” Quinn said. “For example, watches are a status symbol for men. But in strict compliance with the Koran, a man would never wear a yellow gold bracelet watch. It’s a question of humility.”
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