x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Gulf shoppers bring cheers to West End

Region's visitors to London expected to spend a record Dh1.5bn, up 11 per cent, in pre-Ramadan season.

Stores in the UK, like De Beers, the jewellery vendor, are becoming increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern clients.
Stores in the UK, like De Beers, the jewellery vendor, are becoming increasingly dependent on Middle Eastern clients.

There is a Middle-Eastern air in stores in the West End of London as retailers provide Arabic-speaking personal shoppers and put up signs in Arabic to welcome visitors expected to spend a record £250 million (Dh1.5 billion) this summer. More than 140,000 Middle-Eastern visitors are forecast to visit Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street in the next three months and spend 11 per cent more than they did in the same period last year, said Jace Tyrrell, the head of communications for New West End Company, which represents the district's 600 retailers and hotels.

The West End is focusing on its Middle-Eastern visitors, who are mainly from the UAE, because they still have high spending power despite the economic downturn, Mr Tyrrell said. "It makes commercial sense for us to be really giving them an increased level of customer service, given their spending." Alongside Arabic-speaking personal shoppers, maps of the shopping area printed in Arabic and special hotel packages, some jewellers have arranged for private viewings of collections flown in from Paris exclusively for visitors from the Middle East.

"Some stores are even making wider aisles because Middle-Eastern visitors travel in big groups," Mr Tyrrell said. Selfridges will stay open an hour and a half later to match the late shopping hours in the Middle East, and is bringing in products targeting shoppers from the region, said Bruno Barba, the store's PR manager. This includes product lines that are more ornate and bejewelled, perfumes with notes of traditional oud, and more halal foods, he said.

"This year, we've brought in some ranges that would hopefully please them more," he said. "There are abayas now on the shop floor that are very, very stylish." The pre-Ramadan summer period brings hundreds of thousands of visitors from the Middle East to London every year. With the favourable exchange rate of Gulf currencies, pegged to a US dollar that has strengthened against the British pound, retailers are expecting an 11 per cent boost in retail sales, the highest during that period since the association began tracking sales.

The average shopper from the Emirates spends £1,109 in one shopping trip, while a tourist from Saudi Arabia spends £1,678, Mr Tyrrell said. Compare that with the average spend for an American shopper, which is about £600, and a UK shopper, which is £140, "and you start to see why the Middle East is an important market for us", he said. "And their spending is up 50 per cent to date." Mr Tyrrell said data from Global Refund, which tracks tourists' sales in the UK based on applications for tax rebates, showed that sales by Middle-Eastern consumers in the West End of London during the first five months of this year were up by half.

Visitors from China spent 150 per cent more during the same period, while spending by Americans was up 23 per cent. In the wake of the economic downturn, retail sales in Britain were down 1.6 per cent in May compared with the same month last year, according to the national statistics office in the UK. From February to April, total retail sales volume grew by 0.6 per cent, the lowest growth since Dec 1995.

While the number of visitors from Euro zone countries has risen because of the weak pound, retailers are still looking to the annual Middle-Eastern migration north to provide a boost, Mr Tyrrell said. "For the Middle East market, we only see growth," he said. "It's a key market and we're in a recession." Stores in the West End are not the only ones setting their sights on the region. About 40 companies, including Hamptons, the property company that has a strong presence in the UAE, are showing their wares at the Gulf Luxury Fair in London from July 25 to 27, said Marianna Muroczki, one of the organisers. The fair is expecting 6,000 visitors, nearly double the 3,300 who turned up for the first event last year.

Seven out of 10 of those were from the Gulf, Ms Muroczki said. "The Middle-Eastern visitors to London are very important for luxury brands, department stores such as Harrods or Selfridges, for the reason that they still spend heavily on luxury purchases," she said. aligaya@thenational.ae