With purchases falling by up to 40 per cent in the first half of this year, retailers have had to come up with new ways of attracting customers back into their stores by offering more than just products on shelves to maintain their interest. Armina Ligaya reports Meutia Sari pours steaming hot water into a small paper cup filled with finely ground coffee, which floats in clumps to the top. She lets it brew for a few minutes before grabbing a plastic spoon, pausing to address seven people sitting at a table gathered around her with their own cups. "First, we break the coffee, we break the skin," she says. "Then we smell the coffee." Ms Sari takes a plastic spoon and pushes aside the residue floating at the top of the cup to expose the thick, brown liquid brewing below. She then holds the coffee in her left hand, covering the opening but leaving just enough room for her nose to poke into the cup. She inhales deeply and instructs everyone around her to do the same. "What do you smell?" she asks. "The characteristics of this coffee are currant and berries." The others follow her lead, deeply inhaling the aromas emanating from their cups, seeking out a smell of fruit. They sniff a plate of grapes for comparison. This scene did not occur at any one of the UAE's gourmet restaurants. Rather, it is a Tanzanian coffee tasting at Starbucks on Muroor Road in Abu Dhabi. The session was the second of a new monthly series of classes to increase customer knowledge and boost sales of products, says Ms Sari, a trained coffee master from Sumatra, Indonesia. During the hour-long tasting, she answers questions about the differences between Tanzanian coffee and beans from Sidamo in Ethiopia, and gives each "student" sample bags to take home. Adrien Feniou, an engineer who lives in Abu Dhabi, says he has learnt more about the coffee he drinks each day. "You know what you like, but you don't really understand why," he says. "You don't really know where the different flavours come from." Retail sales have dried up since the economic crisis started last autumn, with sales falling in the first half of this year by as much as 40 per cent compared with the same period last year. To convince reluctant shoppers to spend, retailers of all types have started offering more than just sales and promotions. Some now provide free classes for customers, ranging from coffee tasting to indoor golf lessons to digital photography tips. As a way of improving sales, retailers are becoming more creative and interactive with their customers, says Naeem Ghafoor, the chief executive of Skyline Retail Services consultancy in Dubai. "I think it will add to the customer experience and, eventually, anything that adds to the customer experience should eventually put bucks in your till." The retailing concept is also paying off at Plug Ins electronics, says Probir Mukherjee, the managing director of electronics for Al Futtaim, the parent company. Since offering a free class on how to use a digital SLR camera with each purchase, sales of the equipment have risen 20 per cent, he says. "We hope to achieve enduring customer relationships," says Mr Mukherjee. "Today's world of electronics is changing. It's not like you buy one box, then you're done with it. You buy a box, you buy a gadget, you buy additions, you buy upgrades and attachments. And you will go back to the place which will actually offer you that extra value." Plug Ins started the camera sessions two months ago as a pilot project and is now extending the range of classes to include how to make home movies, and how to transfer media files on a hard drive, Mr Mukherjee says. "We'll do an academy on anything, whether it is microwave cooking, whether it is healthy lifestyles, all the kinds of stuff you can do with your gadgets," he says. Sports retailers are also getting into the game. Sun and Sand Sports began offering 20-minute golf lessons by a professional golfer from Emirates Golf Club three weeks ago at its Ibn Battuta outlet, says Vishal Bhatia, the marketing manager. The classes take place in a specially built seven-metre square golf booth inside the store. This "golf range" has a net to catch the golf ball and a video camera behind it to record the student's swing and technique. Mr Bhatia says the aim is to introduce new people to the sport, especially those who are deterred by the expense of a lesson. "It's not cheap playing golf," he says. "Price is a factor, time is a factor and there is also an intimidation factor." That was the case for Shyam Vhaskaran. Every time the 32-year-old Dubai resident passed the sprawling golf course at Dubai Sports City, where he works in the hospitality sector, he admired it and wanted to learn the game. But he was hesitant to start. "First of all, it's an expensive sport," he says. "I thought 'should I go? Is it going to be fun or not?' But now I know it's a lot of fun." Last Friday, he took his first lesson at Sun and Sand Sports with professional golf trainer Jamie Wood. At first, Mr Vhaskaran says he did not know the difference between a putter and a driver. But Mr Wood showed him how to hold the club and played video footage of Mr Vhaskaran's own swing to demonstrate where he needed to correct his technique. "The first two shots, I couldn't hit the ball at all," Mr Vhaskaran says. "Then it happened. I felt like I achieved something." He now plans on buying a basic set of golf clubs and enrolling in more classes. Mr Wood, who has been teaching the sport for 13 years, the past four in Dubai, says the weekend classes have helped attract attention for both the golf club and the store. "It's great exposure," he says. "It introduces more people to the game, in a different avenue we haven't explored before." email@example.com
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