Retailers refocus for big sell


by Armina Ligaya

Not too long ago, Europe and North America were the hot markets for retailers.

The shopping avenues of Paris, London and New York were the places the luxury labels and high-street brands needed to be, and retailers clamoured to stake their claim.

But as those markets became saturated, retail giants such as Starbucks and General Motors shifted their focus to emerging economies such as the Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

“The [strong] spending pattern in Europe and the US is not there,” says Vipen Sethi, the chief executive of Landmark Group, which has more than 900 stores in 15 countries. Its stores include the Splash, Babyshop and Home Centre outlets.

“But there are issues going into [emerging] markets,” he says. “It is far more time consuming, and far more difficult to penetrate them. But once you’re in there, it can be quite lucrative.”

Big brands poured into the Bric nations as well as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, and into Egypt before the political turmoil gripped the country, say analysts at the Credit Suisse Research Institute.

“In each instance, real GDP and household income growth has been relatively strong during the last five to 10 years, there is clearly a degree of pent-up demand,” particularly among the low-income groups in each market, says a recent report by the institute. “And finally, these markets register as the largest by population within their respective regions.”

But as the recent crises in north Africa have shown, conditions can change rapidly.

Retailers say Egypt still has huge potential with its population of some 80 million, but that hinges on how, and when, the political upheaval is resolved.

“Certainly, [Egypt] was in the plan,” says Firoz Merchant, the founder and chairman of Pure Gold Group, which operates the retail chain Pure Gold Jewellers. “But now, we are waiting and watching the situation. And then we’ll decide.”

Here, The Nationallooks at some of the countries that retailers view as having great potential.


This South American nation is the fifth most populous country in the world, and Brazilians’ renowned love of life influences their spending habits. Brazilian consumers are the most optimistic among the emerging retail markets, according to a survey by Nielsen and Credit Suisse, with 63 per cent of respondents expecting an improvement in their personal finances over the next six months.

The buoyant mood stems from Brazil’s coming out of the global downturn with hardly a scratch. And there are good times ahead – the country is set to host the 2014 Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Preparing for those two global sporting events requires major infrastructure investments, including large commercial centres and shopping malls.

The growing numbers of visitors to the country, and a population with increasing income, presents a prime opportunity for retailers.

“Discretionary spending is far more prevalent than other countries and mirrored in relatively low saving rates,” says Credit Suisse. “Put simply, they live and spend in the present day.”


The largest country in the world, covering about 17 million square kilometres, with an estimated population of 139 million. After years of rising incomes and increased consumer spending, the retail market is starting to cool. Russia is also a difficult market to enter, riddled with layers of bureaucracy, where success is more a matter of survival of the fittest. Retailers with a long-term approach will reap the benefits, says Dan Starta, the managing director of the consultancy AT Kearney Middle East.

“Retailers need to be prepared to navigate red tape in establishing a presence in Russia,” he says. Russian consumers are also somewhat less optimistic than those in Brazil, India and China. Relatively high inflation may be a culprit, in light of last year’s crop failure and ban on wheat exports. But, for those retailers that do succeed, the country’s wealthy consumers will splash out on big-ticket items. “Positive real income growth for the high-end earners means that intentions to purchase cars and property rise steeply at the top of the income scale,” says Credit Suisse.


India ranked as the world’s most optimistic country on Nielsen’s consumer confidence survey in the fourth quarter of last year. And with good reason. Its economy continues to grow, along with consumers’ spending power and the number of middle-class Indians. The country, home to about 1.16 billion people, has a large base of potential shoppers who have a growing appetite for western brands.

But much of the market is still dominated by smaller independent shops, rather than the organised chain retailers in gleaming shopping malls seen in more developed markets. The retail sector in India is worth an estimated US$410 billion (Dh1.5 trillion), according to AT Kearney.

Retailers are taking notice, with Walmart and Starbucks both partnering local firms to make their mark on the Asian country. But its dense population, and myriad of cultures and dialects, makes it extremely difficult for retailers to navigate their way to country-wide commercial success.

“Every kilometre in India changes,” says Nilesh Ved, the chairman of the Apparel Group, which has stores under the Mango fashion brand and La Senza lingerie brand in India.


Home to about 1.3 billion people, the second-biggest economy in the world behind the US has attracted the world’s major retailers, such as the high-end products retailer LVMH and General Motors.

Chinese consumers also have rich tastes, as demand for luxury products remains strong and analysts expect the country to become the largest luxury market worldwide by 2015.

But while consumer incomes and discretionary spending grows, Chinese consumers still have a strong desire to save. More than 30 per cent of their incomes are typically tucked away for a rainy day, according to Credit Suisse.

Even so, China is arguably the most potentially lucrative market for retailers, it said. “Consumers in this market are clearly shifting away from spending that has historically been concentrated on essential items and are now aggressively acquiring more discretionary goods and services,” says Credit Suisse.


Consumer spending in Indonesia represents more than one third of all the retail sales in South East Asia, according to AT Kearney. By 2015, sales are expected to double as the economy grows, and as the Indonesian population of about 242 million swells further, the research firm predicts.

Tourism to places such as Bali, and an expatriate population, has whetted Indonesia’s appetite for western foods. A major chunk of the average Indonesian’s household budget is spent on food, according to Credit Suisse. “While spending intentions indicate strong relative demand for essential items [such as dairy and bottled water] in Indonesia, there are signs of broader types of consumption given the support from positive real income growth,” the research firm said.

Saudi Arabia

The Gulf’s largest economy, with 25.7 million residents and US$24,400 GDP per capita, the kingdom holds great promise for retailers. Saudi Arabia has remained largely sheltered from the global recession, and consumption continues to be strong.

Shopping is a form of recreational activity in Saudi Arabia and, with the bulk of the population concentrated in Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah, the population is easier to access, says Mr Starta.

“There is a high-concentration, high-spending potential, and you also have people who like to shop,” he says. And Saudi Arabia is young – about 38 per cent of the population is under the age of 14, and about 60 per cent are between the ages of 15 and 64, according to the CIA World Factbook.

“There is a culture there of buying, plus a youth culture,” Mr Starta says.


A little over two weeks ago, most retailers would have said Egypt ranked high on their list for expansion. It benefited from steady streams of tourists and traditional outdoor markets were giving way to modern shopping centres.

Two mall developers based in the UAE, Majid Al Futtaim and Al-Futtaim, already have plans to build there. But Credit Suisse’s survey, conducted in August and September last year, already showed signs of gloom.

Egyptian respondents had a negative outlook for their personal finances in the six months ahead, and their incomes had been squeezed during the last 12 months by as much as 12 per cent for low-income earners. “[About] 38 per cent of respondents to the survey in Egypt expected their financial prospects to worsen, only 12 per cent expected things to improve,” says Credit Suisse.

Retailers believe the underlying economy in Egypt still has potential, but they will keep a close eye on the political situation.

“We’ve got aggressive plans for growth, had aggressive plans for growth,” says Mr Sethi. “But now we are going to go and wait and watch, and see how the government takes shape.”




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