Will Abu Dhabi residents welcome it as the prime shopping centre of the city or write it off as tourist trap?
Revealing the real appeal of Yas Mall
Yas Mall opened its doors last month with plenty of fanfare. The week before the UAE’s 43rd National Day, amid the Formula One Grand Prix when regional race fans flocked to Yas Island, the newest retail hotspot in the Gulf drew in throngs of crowds.
Surrounded by Ferrari World, Yas Marina Circuit and Ikea, the mall is the largest in the capital, and second in the UAE only to The Dubai Mall. It has been advertised as a shopper’s paradise, and though its novelty and stature as a mega-mall are undeniable, its significance to the emirate’s shopping scene is still being determined. Its popularity on opening was evident, but how is it faring now, one month after opening?
On the eve of the final F1 Grand Prix race, Yas Mall was packed: out-of-towners with F1 passes around their necks, large families and cliques of teenagers made up the varied crowd. Many were there to size up the hype of the mall on its fourth day open, rather than for a serious shopping trip – less than a third carried shopping bags. Others were there for a meal out with their families. Most of the restaurants – those that were open, that is – were packed, and many, such as Paul Café, Shake Shack and The Cheesecake Factory, had long waiting lines.
Fast-forward one month, though, and the mall is still sparking the interest of mall-goers. During a midweek night-time trip there, visitor numbers were slow but steady, with a small number carrying shopping bags. But come the weekend and there’s a marked increase in people visiting to shop and dine – the crowds getting thicker into the afternoons and evenings, their purchases safely secured in colourful shopping bags. The lure of a new mall, holiday shopping and end-of-year sales is like catnip to UAE residents.
On the top floor of Yas Mall, an arch of citrus-coloured balloons welcomes visitors into Jamba Juice, the first of the California franchise locations in Abu Dhabi. An upbeat Taylor Swift track blasts from speakers and hosts dressed in bright orange, green and yellow uniforms hand out menus to passersby. The juice joint bears resemblance to its branches in the United States, save for the addition of a “dates with dates” smoothie on the menu, and Reem coconut water in the fridge. The seating area is full: two women wearing abayas sip on their juices while scrolling on their smartphones, while an Indian family of eight tries to gather the drink requests of their kids, who are far more interested in bopping each other on the heads with balloons. Outside, a young couple passes by the entrance and pauses. The woman, dressed in ripped jeans, an off-shoulder tee and Converse sneakers, peers inside and exclaims: “Jamba Juice. Abu Dhabi has everything now.”
Indeed, Yas Mall presents many firsts for the capital, including Hollister Co, Hamleys toy shop and Brooks Brothers among others. Opposite La Senza stands Abu Dhabi’s first fully fledged Victoria’s Secret complete with the latest lingerie collections, in addition to the perfumes and cosmetics available at the brand’s other Abu Dhabi locations. The mall contains the largest Debenhams department store outside of the United Kingdom, and the first Joe Fresh in the Emirates. It also houses the UAE’s first Lego Store, which celebrated its Middle East inauguration with the display of a life-size camel made entirely from Lego blocks. One by one, children climb atop the massive toy sculpture and pose, while their parents take photos from cameras and mobile phones.
A big attraction for families is the mall’s child-friendly ambience. While it does not have a Kidzania like The Dubai Mall, Yas Mall has a Build-a-Bear Workshop and a kids’ cinema and play area that can be rented for private parties.
Reportedly the largest branch in the Gulf, Zara at Yas Mall contains a massive children’s section, which fills on the weekend with stroller-pushing shoppers picking up tiny sweaters from the winter collection for their young ones. Upstairs, an entire corridor is dedicated to children’s wear, lined with stores such as Roberto Cavalli Junior, Sacoor Kids and Gymboree. Another “coming soon” sign promises the opening of the world’s biggest department store from the Chalhoub Group, with a focus on three sections: handbags, cosmetics and children. It’s purported to become the “anchor” of the mall, and the co-chief executive of Chalhoub Group, Patrick Chalhoub, promises the retail space will fill a gap in the market when it opens at the end of next year.
With North American-style high ceilings and wide walkways, Yas Mall is extraordinarily spacious, so much so that even when it’s quite crowded, the mall doesn’t feel congested. There are also plenty of benches and sofas where shoppers may rest, a feature not so common in other UAE malls. Though the ambience is festive, not all stores have opened yet. More than 30 retail venues, such as House of Fraser, Versace and Mango, are plastered with “coming soon” signs.
The crowd of shoppers at this mall couldn’t be more diverse. An elderly woman wearing a vibrant blue and orange sari walks by a European father wearing khakis and a blue cardigan tied around the shoulders of his white shirt. A group of three Arab girls carrying shopping bags from Topshop head towards Juicy Couture, while finishing up their Godiva ice-cream cones. Situated in a corner location upstairs, the store draws in female shoppers with hot pink banners reading “Hollywood Holiday” splashed across the front windows, and gold-studded borders framing the doors. In addition to the popular Juicy Couture velour sweat sets, the store contains jewellery displayed in glass cases, as well as children’s clothing and the latest ready-to-wear collection, featuring an intricate pastel tweed coat for winter. It’s the largest Juicy Couture outlet in the UAE, and arguably the best, with interiors resembling those of its Los Angeles boutiques.
“We saw a need to bring a bigger and better store aesthetic, and what better place than the capital,” says Rajiv Suri, the chief executive of Majid Al Futtaim Fashion, the company that brought Juicy Couture to this region. “The mall is perfectly placed to service residents from Abu Dhabi, plus the surrounding areas, including Dubai and Al Ain.”
A scan of licence plates in the parking lot shows that around 72 per cent of visitors are Abu Dhabi residents, 25 per cent drove down from Dubai, two per cent came from other Emirates such as Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, and the remaining one per cent travelled from Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. While one may expect a lower percentage of non-Abu Dhabi residents on a weekday, this isn’t the case. On a Wednesday night a week after the mall’s opening, almost 40 per cent of visitors were Dubai residents, while the remaining 60 per cent were from Abu Dhabi.
A salesman at H&M says that after opening weekend, the hype died down and customer traffic became much slower. “Transportation may be an issue,” he says, explaining that the drive down Yas Island may put off potential visitors who have minimal shopping errands to run. He works at Deira City Centre and was brought in only for a few weeks to support the staff at the new Yas store. Customer traffic such as that in Dubai’s Deira City Centre however, will certainly take time to build at Yas Mall, and while crowds may seem sparse off-peak, the mall is no less crowded than Mirdif City Centre on a weekday.
On both weekends and weekdays, it’s hard to overlook the great number of visitors with digital SLR cameras slung around their necks, and on the mall’s first weekend open, the crowd included quite a few of the tourists in town for the Grand Prix. A few of them were guests at the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi. Andrew Humphries, the regional vice president and general manager of Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, is confident that an increase in tourism to Abu Dhabi will follow the opening of the mall. “I believe Yas Mall will continue to elevate Yas Island as a key leisure destination, which will attract more people to the island,” he says. “As various attractions such as Yas Waterworld have opened on the island, we have noticed the increase in occupancy at the hotel and I expect that this latest addition will have a positive impact also.”
Perhaps, for Abu Dhabi residents, Yas Mall will retain a reputation of being a tourist attraction rather than becoming the city’s go-to shopping site. Back in February, Yasisland.eu, the unofficial online magazine about Yas Island, hypothesised that: “Yas Mall is set to transform the retail landscape in Abu Dhabi.” Yet, while it definitely offers residents a shopping hub full of variety and entertainment, in the same way that many Dubai residents opt for the convenience of the Mall of the Emirates over the sprawling behemoth that is The Dubai Mall, for those seeking a quick, no-frills shopping trip, Yas Mall may not be an ideal choice. Rather, it’s the perfect place for a full-day family outing, with a variety of cuisines and the largest VOX Max cinema screens in the UAE, in addition to kids’ attractions and a fresh assortment of stores.
A poll taken of Abu Dhabi dwellers showed that they found the most appealing features of Yas Mall to be its restaurants, movie theatre and overall touristy appeal.
However, though Yas Mall intrinsically attracts flocks of tourists, it does serve its purpose as a residential shopping mall. While many visitors snap photos of the mall’s impressive architecture, more serious shoppers browse stores for seasonal gifts and decor. At Sephora, Adele’s Rolling in the Deep fills the large room. Abaya-clad girls sit at the counter, leaning over the mirror attentively to try mascaras while the men accompanying them stay off to the side, testing cologne after cologne. At Zara Home, a blonde woman wearing a denim shirt buys a silver star-shaped wreath, while All I Want for Christmas plays in the background. Even on weekdays, holiday spirits are high, and aside from the multitude of camera-clicking tourists, at least one in five visitors carries shopping bags, stamped with logos including Go Sport, Bath & Body Works and The Toy Store – what better way to measure the success of a shopping mall?