x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

On the right Avenue for luxury in Abu Dhabi

The new shopping mall at Etihad Towers is rolling out the red carpet for high-spending customers, with some stores providing gifts, flowers or even dinner invitations.

The Manolo Blahnik shoe store at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi. DELORES JOHNSON / The National
The Manolo Blahnik shoe store at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi. DELORES JOHNSON / The National

Rizalyn Capati goes above and beyond the call of duty in the pursuit of pleasing her customers.

And she is so good at what she does some VIP clients will shop at Manolo Blahnik's new Abu Dhabi branch only if she is on shift.

"I have one client who we started to have in July only and she has bought almost 30 pairs of shoes already," says Ms Capati, the store manager at Manolo Blahnik, where a pair of shoes can cost up to Dh4,750 (US$1,293).

"I am always the one attending to her. She will not come unless I am around," adds the Filipina sales assistant, who has lived in the UAE for almost seven years.

Sales at the shop in Abu Dhabi's new luxury mall, Avenue at Etihad Towers, contribute to a sector worth about $1.94 billion in the UAE this year alone, according to Euromonitor.

And of that luxury goods total, designer clothes account for $1.03bn, while jewellery and watches make up almost $475 million.

As the figures suggest, VIP customers in the UAE have a lot of money to spend - and expect a different level of service to those who frequent mass-market stores.

A shopping destination right up their exclusive street, or perhaps more aptly avenue, the luxury mall officially opened last week in the capital featuring more than 34 high-end brands such as Cartier, Hermès and Bulgari - with not a mass-market store in sight.

"Customers in Abu Dhabi have high expectations," says Wesam El Geresy, the boutique manager at the Swiss jeweller Piaget in Avenue, the brand's first wholly owned boutique in the region.

"Before coming in they expect some exceptional treatment," he adds.

The brand chose to open a store in Abu Dhabi because it believes the future of retail resides in the emirate, says Mr El Geresy, dressed in a sharp, blue pinstripe suit with a matching blue tie.

"Most of the money is in Abu Dhabi," he says. And the chance to be located in an exclusive mall was another plus.

"High-profile people want it to be discreet. They want a place that becomes a destination for them," adds Mr El Geresy, a Palestinian who was born in the UAE and spent many years in Austria.

Regular customers of Piaget, where the average customer spend per visit is Dh100,000 to Dh500,000, usually call to book an appointment, primarily to ensure no one else will be there.

Mr El Geresy or other members of staff greet the customer outside the store and guide them in.

"Most of them prefer to sit here," says Mr El Geresy, pointing to a plush beige sofa in a room that looks more like a lounge than a store.

"We close the door and offer them full privacy, where in other malls it's not really possible."

Once inside, sales staff serve the customer's favourite drink or snack and chat while they wait to be asked to show the collection to the client.

"Some love the macaroons, some love the egg-white omelettes, especially [some men]. They are pretty much into sports and looking after themselves," says Mr El Geresy.

"We always keep Diet Coke and decaf espresso here. [They never have] Sweet'NLow [sweetener]. For our VIPs, it is always Splenda. We have the organic brown sugar. We have the raw sugar for some of them. We have special branded teas and flavoured teas," he adds.

The ritual plays out three or four times a week but never at the weekends - that is customers' "family time" - and the service is the same for everyone, regardless of how much they spend.

The store also keeps a register of customers' birthdays and anniversaries so staff can send them gifts and new clients receive a welcome pack with a book and a thank-you letter signed by Mr El Geresy.

It is all a far cry from the mass-market shopping experience people receive at most stores at Marina Mall across the street. But Piaget is by no means the only store in Avenue to offer such careful customer service.

Chloé, a French fashion house with a store in the luxury mall, also rolls out the red carpet for clients.

"We always try to treat our customers like they are number one," says Alaa Suliman, a supervisor at the Chloé boutique in Avenue.

"We greet them on their birthday because we have the information. It will be very nice if they receive a phone call," he says.

"Or flowers sometimes. It depends on the occasion and the client," adds Nadia Rizk, who works in marketing and communications for the brand.

At de Grisogono, a Swiss jeweller with a branch at Avenue that sells necklaces costing upwards of Dh24m, customers receive a birthday gift, plus invites to events.

"Every [once in a] while we invite them for a dinner or a lunch or for example a special event. We invite our clients to Formula One," says Joseph Dahi, the assistant boutique manager at de Grisogono.

"We invite them to other activities. We have customers we want to appreciate, so we invite them for lunch and dinner and everything," he adds.

Customers of luxury shops such as Manolo Blahnik, Piaget and de Grisogono spend a lot of money and therefore expect a different level of customer service. But there is another reason the shops must make the extra effort.

There are fewer customers in a mall such as Avenue compared with others in the capital and therefore fewer purchases made on spec than in mass-market malls.

De Grisogono receives two or three visitors on an average day.

"It's more than enough," says Mr Dahi.

"It's not a place you come to [walk round]. They are coming here for a purpose and they want to buy."

And when high net-worth customers do shop they tend to spend a lot of money.

Some customers at Manolo Blahnik will buy six or seven pairs of shoes in one visit that can cost tens of thousands of dirhams.

Ms Capati's best customer owns every colour in a number of styles.

"She loves the classic ones. For example in this one," she says, pointing to a covered-toe shoe with a strap and contrasting coloured piping. "She has most of the colours already. And from that one, which is our best-selling style also, the classic one in suede, she has around eight to nine pairs. She wears them at work."

Often the relationships Ms Capati and her fellow luxury store staff have with her customers do not resemble that of sales assistant and their clients.

"Sometimes they want help like a personal shopper. They say, 'Can you please help me out on this?' For example, I will be with [a client] when she goes to another shop. She will ask me, 'Does it suit me?" says Ms Capati.

"It's not only a client relationship, we're friends."