Splashing out on extravagant items seemed a reckless idea as the economic downturn began to take hold a few years ago. Shopping is now enjoying something of a revival - but spending habits have changed.
Retail therapy back in style in the Emirates
Buying that big-ticket item, such as a new car or a flat-screen television, might have seemed frivolous during the economic downturn.
Consumers had only to turn on their ageing TV sets to witness mounting job losses.
But as the economic recovery gathered pace last year, shoppers headed to the malls with their plastic cards in hand.
Sales for non-food retailers, such as clothing, electronics and jewellery stores, increased 5 per cent to Dh42 billion (US$11.43bn) last year, according to the latest figures from the market research group Euromonitor.
This growth was double that of the overall economy, which the IMF says was 2.5 per cent.
The UAE's tills have also continued to ring in the first quarter of this year, with events such as the Dubai Shopping Festival enjoying strong sales, helped by an influx of Indian and Saudi Arabian tourists.
But this healthy growth is unlikely to continue. Overall sales this year are not expected to match the robust growth of last year, which was boosted by shoppers snapping up big-ticket items, which they held off on during the downturn.
"This year, if you ask any major retailer, they are expecting slightly positive growth, but it's not going to be the 25 to 30 per cent experienced in the boom years," says Richard Adams, a retail analyst at Datamonitor in Dubai.
The overall market is expected to grow at 2 per cent this year, according to Euromonitor, because consumers have taken to bargain hunting rather than returning to the lavish spending that was rife in the halcyon days of old.
Shoppers have also been relying on discount buying periods such as the Dubai Shopping Festival and Summer Surprises. This has led the Dubai Events and Promotions Establishment to rework its structure and pursue year-round attractions to pack malls with visitors.
"The market has changed markedly since 2008," says Mr Adams. "Most major retailers have taken stock and gone through a period of consolidation."
More retailers are looking to revamp their store portfolios and close shops that are underperforming or are in locations no longer deemed to be key growth areas.
The demographics in shopping areas such as Deira, which was once full of families, has persuaded retailers to rethink about where they open stores.
Last month, Jumbo Electronics opened its largest outlet in the region in Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall, having closed two stores elsewhere in the city.
"Most people in Abu Dhabi are going to malls," says Nadeem Khanzadah, the deputy general manager for retail at Jumbo. "We open and close stores to meet demand."
Shoppers are also increasingly turning to online sites, forcing retailers to examine which stores are performing.
A survey by MasterCard released in January revealed that 42 per cent of shoppers in the UAE are now going online to buy anything from clothing and accessories to electronics and insurance.
Competition is already hot among departments stores in the UAE. The country houses some of the world's leading brands, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's from the US; and Harvey Nichols, Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, BHS and Galeries Lafayette from Europe. The UK's House of Fraser and Australia's Myer are also set to join the party by 2013.
Because of this vast level of choice, industry insiders say department stores will need distinct strategies to stand out from the crowd.
"There's a large variance in performance, those that are doing well have a different proposition, like an extensive beauty offering or it may work because a brand might sell a collection only in one location," Mr Adams says.
Bloomingdale's, Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue offer a range of premium brands, while Galeries Lafayette has introduced loyalty cards, which offer discounts of about 10 per cent. In the US and Europe, department stores have been marketed as one-stop shops, but in the UAE this is a role filled by malls, so having a unique selling point will be paramount, he says.
Electronics stores have benefited in the past year from a number of events and product launches. Last year, the Fifa Football World Cup boosted sales of LCD TVs and helped the sector keep pace with the overall market. This was despite strong competition from the growing number of hypermarkets such as Geant and Carrefour.
Mr Khanzadahsays this growth has been sustained at his company with the introduction of 3D LED TVs and the popularity of the recent Cricket World Cup in India. Abu Dhabi Sports has also started broadcasting the English Premier League, further boosting sales. "We witnessed sales growth of about 20 per cent in the first two quarters," Mr Khanzadah says. "We expect that to continue this year."
One of the key challenges facing electronics retailers will be the average sales price decline on recently launched products such as 3D TVs and the Samsung Galaxy Tablet.
"As prices come down for these popular items, volume of sales goes up, but revenues overall in fact decrease," he says.
Jewellers generated about Dh6.3bnlast year, making up 15 per cent of total non-grocery retail sales during the year, according to Euromonitor. The UAE's jewellery sector has been dominated for the past 18 months by the problems at Damas, the region's biggest player.
This saga is now coming to an end, with a debt restructuring expected to be put in place, as well as an agreement signed to repay Dh600 million in cash and gold that was withdrawn by the Abdullah brothers without shareholder approval.
Damas is expected to consolidate its business and focus on the core growth areas of the Gulf, namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Other jewellers are also confident on the region, with Mouawad, based in Dubai, aiming to double the number of its stores in the Middle East over the next five years.
A shop is expected to be open in Abu Dhabi by the end of the year. Dubai's Rivoli Group, which sells luxury products such as high-end timepieces and leather bags, expects sales growth of 15 to 20 per cent this year. But the price of gold, which hit a record high last week, is expected to eat into some retailers' margins.
Clothing and footwear
Clothing and footwear shopping is probably the most popular retail therapy and has enjoyed the fastest growth in the economic recovery. Last year, the sector grew by 7 per cent. "Clothing benefited from robust demand in Abu Dhabi compared to Dubai," the Euromonitor report said.
Dubai is not expected to start construction on a mall for the next five years, while retail space in the capital is expected to double to 1.8 million square metres by 2015, the property broker Cushman & Wakefield estimates.
Many clothing and retail brands are investing in stores outside Dubai to take advantage of growth across the Emirates. Majid Al Futtaim recently started construction on Fujairah's first major mall, with 100 specialist stores and restaurants.
Manu Jeswani, the chief executive of Shoe Mart, part of the Landmark Group, says he is reinventing the Steve Madden brand of shoes and aims to roll out three new stores in Abu Dhabi, at Al Wahda Mall, Centrepoint Marina and Al Jimi Mall in Al Ain. This is in addition to The Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates.
"We are studying the market closely before opening stores and making sure the mall and location in the mall is the right one," Mr Jeswani says.
Landmark is expected to further consolidate its strong retail position, with Euromonitor describing Splash, Max and Babyshop as "cornerstones" of the UAE shopping scene.
Furniture and furnishings
With such a high number of expatriates in the UAE, furniture stores are big earners, generating sales of Dh6bn last year, which accounted for 14 per cent of total non-grocery sales.
A growing second-hand furniture market, through websites such as Dubizzle, plays a large part in a fragmented market. But Ikea accounts for a large share of new furniture sales.
With Al-Futtaim holding its franchise in the UAE, Ikea opened its largest store in the Middle East last month on Yas Island and has a second store in Dubai planned for the Marina in 2013.
Ikea is the largest brand in the UAE by sales, making up nearly 8 per cent of total non-food retail sales, with the Home Centre, part of Landmark, some way behind at 2.5 per cent.
Despite a healthy environment for sales, analysts do not expect the home and garden furniture sector to grow at the same rate as the overall market, which is expected to be driven by growth in clothing as more people flock back to the malls as the economy improves.