DUBAI — Having attracted 80 million people annually for four years running, The Dubai Mall bills itself as the most visited lifestyle destination globally. Next month, the retail landmark celebrates its 10th anniversary amid dizzying changes in consumer behavior.
“We have a unique asset that is among the best retail destinations in the world,” said Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, the new chief executive officer of Emaar Malls. “You just can’t take that for granted. We have to keep modernizing it. That means making sure it’s contemporary, talks to a new generation of consumers: Millennials, Gen Z and global travelers. I’d like for this to be an incubator of new ideas for the future.”
Bousquet-Chavanne, who took the helm of the malls division of developer Emaar just three months ago, said: “My number-one ambition is to keep the mall relevant forever.”
That’s a challenging task at a time when people are gravitating toward the convenience and efficiency of online shopping, including in the Middle East.
Bousquet-Chavanne doesn’t actually like to use the “m word,” explaining that “mall” doesn’t properly encapsulate what The Dubai Mall has come to be. While it has garnered titles like “world’s biggest mall” from the Guinness Book of World Records, Bousquet-Chavanne said: “The idea wasn’t to be bigger and grander, but to redefine what retail means. It’s a social forum — a place where the community comes together. Of course, retail is woven into that.”
With over 1,300 stores, 200 food and beverage outlets plus entertainment offerings ranging from an Olympic-size ice rink and aquarium to an underwater zoo and augmented reality theme park, The Dubai Mall has major pull as a family leisure destination. The Dubai Mall has been a driver of tourism for the entire emirate, becoming its most popular attraction. Some 97 percent of visitors to Dubai take in The Dubai Mall, according to the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing’s 2017 annual visitor report.
Fashion is the leading tenant category in the mall, helping to position Dubai as a global fashion hub. “We are a category killer in luxury and I expect it to remain that way,” said Bousquet-Chavanne. Earlier this year, Dubai Mall inaugurated its expanded Fashion Avenue, adding 15 percent to total gross leasable area. About 150 new stores opened, including 80 regional flagships. Many are new in the Middle East, including American Rag, Aquazzura, Maison Assouline, Pleats Please, Ralph & Russo, and SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker.
Despite a wealth of upscale offerings, the success of The Dubai Mall is being able to cater to a wide range of social demographics, not only luxury. “The proposition in the mall has to be compelling to cater to so many nationalities,” Bousquet-Chavanne said.
With 2.5 billion people living within four hours by plane, The Dubai Mall attracts visitors from all over. “We are really at the epicenter and it’s astounding. From Casablanca to Shanghai, from Mumbai to Lagos, Dubai is that connection point,” he said. “In terms of customers, the center of gravity is tilting toward Asia. Chinese are the fastest growth market.” The mall has made special provisions for Chinese visitors including dedicated information booths with Mandarin-speaking staff.
The number-one tourist group is from India, and for the upcoming Diwali holiday, the mall has developed an augmented reality light show.
Bousquet-Chavanne described the mall as a multimedia content platform that aims to incorporate more digital technology. “We are the most Instagrammed location in Dubai. People coming in are really sharing the excitement,” he said.
This week, the mall launched a new app with interactive maps and a parking tool that will allow clients to find the closest parking place to the stores they need to go to. Visitors can even reserve parking spots ahead for a fee. “It’s about making shopping easier and more convenient,” said Bousquet-Chavanne. “It’s these kinds of technology enhancements that we believe will make experiences better.”
He admits that parking has been a “friction point” for customers. The mall will be adding 5,000 parking spots by the first quarter of next year in a new structure that will also house new shopping concepts.
Footfall, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into high sales. Retailers are reporting a slowdown over the last two quarters. “We know September was challenging,” said Bousquet-Chavanne. He said he would like to work more closely with retailers to share information that could be helpful in terms of bolstering sales, especially as it relates to customer behavior. “I want there to be more transparency. We have to come up with solutions that are joint solutions. There is an exceptional interdependency between us and our retail partners,” he said.
Rent at The Dubai Mall remains among the highest in the region, with waiting lists for brands to enter. But for smaller independent brands, especially those popular with the younger consumers, being at Dubai Mall is a challenge. Bousquet said he plans to introduce an “incubator” to bring in different brands into the mall that cater to the tastes of new customers. “I want to take a chance on new concepts and make it possible for them to come to Dubai. We will be richer for it in terms of having a differentiated offering. I want to make it easy and affordable for those brands. I want to support the best of those new generations of brands that are coming up and dedicate resources they might not have to give them the runway in the region,” he said.