As the world came to a sudden, grinding halt, so did the sales at brick-and-mortar stores everywhere. Shutters came down on shopfronts while mall doors were padlocked inde nitely; the beloved spaces that form the most integral part of our shopping culture here in the Middle East. It’s an inexorable truth that malls are our playgrounds; monoliths built as both air-conditioned escape from the often-extreme heat, and mini cities – by way of enormous love letters – to luxury and style.
For tourists and residents alike, Dubai in particular has become synonymous with shopping, with The Dubai Mall recording 84 million visitors in 2019 alone. The Middle East is one of the last bastions of a predominantly physical shopping experience; a business model that has thus far worked in favour of the brands, franchisees and the retail-space developers, as well as we consumers to a large degree.
But when the calamity of COVID-19 forced a steadfast stop to it, how did luxury brands, who historically have thrived from the experience of IRL and by-appointment-only store sales, slot into the crowded jostle of the e-commerce market? Especially since – according to a Chalhoub Group study – 70 per cent of women like to shop ‘in clans’ with groups of their friends?
Social distancing has certainly put a dampener on that, but does it mean that our consumer habits in the Middle East will be irrevocably changed? Moreover, how is the region’s rather overdue pivoting to e-tail going to impact a mall business that has taken a hit, and may even continue to do so?
In the last month alone, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Bvlgari and Tory Burch have all joined the e-comm race in the Middle East; a move that, albeit inevitable, has no doubt been accelerated by the onset of Coronavirus as brands rally to make up for lost sales. It’s only a matter of time before more maisons follow suit, and the good news is that the data shows that the appetite for luxury purchasing – albeit online in the interim – is still alive, well and not letting COVID-19 defeat it as much as initally feared.
Working from home has created one such tangible effect, with luxury e-tailer, Moda Operandi recording an 85 per cent spike in searches for high-end sweatpants in the month directly after March 9th; the week that COVID-19 was of cially declared a pandemic. It also, however, saw a 40 per cent rise in shoppers looking to buy investment pieces, with Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion seeing an uptick in fine jewellery, watch and shoe sales.
Ultimately, though, what does this consumer behaviour merged with the evolution of retail mean for our malls? In Europe and the States, even pre-Covid, brick-and-mortar retail has been suffering for years, but since mall culture here is so entwined in the tapestry of how we live, it’s hard to imagine it going the same way. Many have already reopened, and are as busy – if not more so – than before. What’s important to remember is that the malls here offer so much more than just retail; they form part of our community – our way of life. Evolution is natural, so here’s to e-commerce just bolstering the treasure-trove experience we hold so dear.
All images courtesy of Jason Llyod Evans
From Harper's Bazaar Arabia's Summer 2020 Issue