By  on February 1, 2010

At long last, Bloomingdale’s dives into the international arena today with the opening of two stores in Dubai.

It’s a critical test to gauge the viability of further overseas expansion and if the Bloomingdale’s cachet can be sustained in a partnership situation. Bloomingdale’s has licensed the units to the Al Tayer Group LLC, considered the region’s leading luxury retailer and distributor.

“This was a total collaboration, but there is nothing in the stores, from a creative point of view, that Bloomingdale’s did not approve,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer. “What Bloomingdale’s stands for is going to be embraced by Dubai.”

Gould and his team will be keeping close tabs on the Dubai stores, located in The Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest shopping centers. “We envision a monthly communication — at least,” he said.

Other American retailers — including Saks Inc., Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Tiffany & Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Brooks Brothers — are further along with their international strategies. While Bloomingdale’s has been contemplating additional overseas stores, scouting locations in China, Kuwait and elsewhere, there’s no urgency to push the agenda, particularly since much of the world’s economy has gone sour, and the company already has a lot on its plate. Bloomingdale’s is opening its first four fashion outlets this year, as well as a store in Santa Monica, Calif., and sees more domestic expansion possibilities in the Pacific Northwest and Texas.

Bloomingdale’s Dubai stores — a 146,000-square-foot men’s and women’s apparel and accessories unit and a 54,000-square-foot home unit — will go through a few seasons or more before there’s any decision on other foreign sites. “We are in no rush to make a determination,” Gould said. “We are not running around anywhere looking. But we are always open to listening. We want to make this [Dubai] work. We want to learn from this. We are here for the long term. It’s not a 100-yard dash. This is a marathon. We will be successful. Together [with Al Tayer] we have great anticipation of the things that we can do. The only question is the degree of success that we have.”

Gould stressed there were two top priorities for Dubai: getting the right partner for a market new to Bloomingdale’s and insuring the retailer’s DNA gets exported. Marvin Traub, the former Bloomingdale’s chairman and now an industry consultant, was instrumental in bringing the two parties together.

“The stores are inspired by 59th Street, with Arabian influences tenderly cushioned throughout. There is a modern, contemporary feel to these stores,” said Shireen El Khatib, ceo of Al Tayer Insignia, the luxury arm of the Al Tayer Group. “We have insured that the Dubai Bloomingdale’s stores will encapsulate a world-class retail experience including the best international brands, a contemporary store ambience and excellence in customer service.”

While the merchandising of the stores was orchestrated by Al Tayer, it’s largely within the Bloomingdale’s matrix, Gould said. Al Tayer did add several resources not sold at any U.S. Bloomingdale’s stores, raising chances one day the retailer could sell some of those in America. In Dubai, Bloomingdale’s will be selling for the first time Illamasqua and Kanebo on the beauty floor; Asprey, Boucheron, H. Stern and Gucci in fine jewelry; Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, Balenciaga and Lana Marks in handbags and accessories; Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Gucci, YSL, Prabal Gurung and Reem Acra in ready-to-wear; Gucci, Thomas Pink, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, YSL and Gucci in men’s, and Armani, Dolce & Gabbana Junior, GF Ferré and Moschino in children’s.

In addition, “We are bringing a lot of American brands to Dubai,” Gould noted.

If the store proves successful, he said, “It’s an opportunity to leverage Bloomingdale’s to other international locations and bring brands into our U.S. stores. We think that what we are doing in combination with Al Tayer can have enormous positive impact on our U.S. stores. This has to work. If it doesn’t, it’s a blemish on the Bloomingdale’s name. It’s very important.”

Under the licensed agreement, Al Tayer owns and operates the store, pays a fee to Bloomingdale’s, plus a percentage of sales. Al Tayer has established separate management teams for the two stores. Based in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, Al Tayer operates in 12 countries and is involved in the automotive, contracting, distribution, publishing and retail sectors. Insignia operates 80 stores in the region, including the largest Harvey Nichols outside the United Kingdom at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai.

The Bloomingdale’s stores cost 270 million dirham, or about $74 million U.S. They were designed by Callison Architecture Inc and RYA Studio with direction from Jack Hruska, Bloomingdale’s executive vice president of creative services. They have a total of 470 employees with 40 nationalities represented so better service can be extended to the expected influx of tourists from around the world, and Dubai’s own international makeup.

Among Bloomingdale’s Dubai more innovative elements:

• The “street of shops” in the home store, with a fountain in the center.

• A three-story glass “drum” housing handbags on the first floor, women’s denim on two and men’s denim on three. It lights up at night and becomes a beacon for the mall.

• An upscale 10,000-square-foot kids department with Armani, D&G, Ralph Lauren, and interactive games, rides and toy machines.

• Shop-in-shops for YSL, Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Jimmy Choo, Balenciaga, Coach and Armani Collezioni.

• A fragrance hall clad in beveled mirror.

• The largest designer footwear department in the region, at more than 9,400 square feet.

The 7,000-square-foot “street of shops” will include about a dozen boutiques, each 400 to 500 square feet. There will be New York New York for T-shirts, hats, photos and keepsakes; the first Magnolia Bakery in the Middle East; a combined Rizzoli and Assouline book store; Bloomies Ice Cream, and Bazaar for new and vintage Arabic home accessories.

Overall, “There is no home store at this level in terms of upscale price points and mix of merchandise,” El Khatib said. “All categories are under one roof.”

While the stores are adorned with hand-blown chandeliers, Arabian carpet designs and wall treatments for a warm, homey feel, the signature Bloomingdale’s black trim and black and white checkerboard marble floors have been retained. The stores will also have Bloomingdale’s signature brown shopping bags, packaging, logos, stationery and even business cards.

“There is no confusion — the iconography is clearly Bloomingdale’s,” said Tony Spring, Bloomingdale’s president. He said “a myriad” of Al Tayer personnel including merchants, financial and human resource executives have been guided through Bloomingdale’s stores around the U.S. to be educated about the business. “We have given them as much as possible, without handcuffing them.”

Al Tayer has also been educated on “all of our merchandising standards, our presentation standards and marketing strategies,” said Hruska. “There will be regular discussions and reviews of the marketing and visual standards.”

Service will be at a premium, with lavish personal shopping departments, an interior design service, a gift registry, concierge, Shine grooming salons for men and women, a demonstration kitchen, as well as an Elixir juice bar and a Bloomies Coffee bar. There’s no way around it. “It is very important in this part of the world,” El Khatib said. “People like to feel pampered. We are moving away from the department store ambience so people feel like they are in a boutique. The men’s and women’s personal shopping spaces are lavish. Here, customers are used to shopping in boutiques.”

Asked how the Bloomingdale’s assortment was tweaked for the Middle East, El Khatib replied, “Fashion is more embellished, less classic, and more designer-oriented with less on the contemporary side. We also have an exotic leather shop. There is no coat department but certain sportswear brands will display a few coats, maybe two or three styles in a collection. And there are lots of size 38 and 36,” which are Italian sizes equivalent to fours and twos in America.

Still, Bloomingdale’s will be challenged by Dubai’s economy which has been hurt by tumbling real estate values, credit issues, stalled projects and debt burdens. El Khatib nonetheless remains optimistic: “Business is beginning to pick up. January was a good start to the year.”

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