DUBAI: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) luxury retail sector has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with high-end brands performing particularly well, as shoppers splash the cash they saved by not spending on entertainment or travel during the last year, according to one of the region’s biggest retailers.
Consultancy firm Bains & Company in April reported that the GCC luxury goods market declined 16.6 percent year on year to $7.4 billion in 2020, with Saudi Arabia down 8 percent and the tourist-dependent UAE declining 25 percent.
However, Michael Chalhoub, president of strategy, growth, innovation and investment and vice-president joint ventures at the Chalhoub Group, which has 559 stores across the GCC and manages brands such as Dior, Swarovski, Fendi and Louis Vuitton, told Arab News that the market has bounced back.
“I think the luxury market, and fashion in particular, has recovered in 2021, at levels even higher than in 2019,” he said.
“Local consumers are traveling less. And so, consumption has been repatriated. And we estimate that, in normal time, between one-third to 50 percent of the luxury consumption of GCC nationals happens abroad in London, Paris and Geneva. But now, because of the pandemic, they’ve had to stay, in particular in Saudi Arabia, where the borders were blocked for most of the first half of the year,” he added.
With gyms, restaurants, entertainment venues and travel off limits for a long period, Chalhoub said that shoppers now had more disposable income and were feeling free to spend their savings.
“I would say that average income has gone higher because of a lack of entertainment expenses. What people aren’t spending in restaurants and travel, they are probably spending it on taking care of themselves,” he said.
However, Chalhoub said that the rebound differed across retail segments. Very high-end luxury brands are performing much better than premium or affordable brands. Jewelry, fragrances and beauty brands are seeing strong growth, but he observed that makeup was still down, mainly due to consumers wearing masks and not leaving the house as often.
“With fashion, I think that we’re up by 5 to 7 percent in the region versus 2019, mainly with luxury fashion and even more so with high-end luxury,” he said, looking at the industry as a whole.
Many retailers have seen triple-digit growth in their online sales during 2020, and the Chalhoub Group accelerated its digitalization strategy in line with the wider industry. “If we were to compare 2021 numbers to 2019, we’re probably talking about 100 percent growth for the industry. And this is incredible. I think the numbers I had were plus 96 percent in the GCC as a whole and even 138 percent just in the UAE,” he said.
However, while online sales might be popular for grocery or food outlets, high-end fashion consumers still like to feel, touch and try on clothing before buying.
For this reason, Chalhoub said that the company expects a higher percentage of returns when it comes to online high-end fashion. “We’re inviting our customer to say try it on and then send it back if you need to,” he said.
With Saudi Arabia less dependent on international tourists for retail sales, the Kingdom largely avoided the slump in sales last year. Chalhoub Group has operated in the Kingdom since 1975, where it has six offices, 215 stores and about 3,600 employees.
It now controls 38 percent of the Saudi market, 48 percent of fashion and 55 percent of beauty, but it is aiming to become the largest player in the sector by the end of next year.
“We’ve made Saudi Arabia a main focus for ourselves; we want to make sure that we cater for the new Saudi customers as much as possible. We have a population there that is young and really enthusiastic about some of the transformation that is happening there,” Chalhoub said.
“We’re investing a lot into Saudi Arabia. The objective that we had set ourselves about six months ago was to double our revenues there in eighteen months. And that means investing more and catering to those customers spending more locally rather than internationally,” he added.
One of the ways the group is aiming to capture more of the Saudi market is by tapping into the Kingdom’s local fashion talent. In early July, the company launched Fashion Lab, a first-of-its-kind initiative in the Kingdom, offering local entrepreneurs the chance to win $15,000 in funding to help establish their fashion brands.
Successful participants will get to take part in a two-week “boot camp,” which will help them navigate through the different elements of developing their brand, including marketing, supply chain management, content creation and media exposure.
Looking forward, the Bain & Company report said: “With about 40 percent of the population aged under 25, Saudi Arabia will likely remain the biggest engine of growth for the regional luxury industry in coming years.”