Luxury Retail at The Pearl-Qatar with Kirk Martin

As The Pearl-Qatar gears up to become an iconic destination for visitors to the country, Megan Masterson spoke with executive vice-president of Fashion and Retail Leasing, Kirk Martin, about the road that led him to this tiny Gulf country, and what we can expect from this monumental project in the years ahead.

When Kirk Martin’s father told him he had to figure out a way to pay for two-thirds of his own university fees, little did he know that he would be setting his son on a path to a highly successful career in luxury retail.

“My father said he wanted me to understand the value of money,” remembers United States (US)-born Martin, executive vice-president of Fashion and Retail Leasing at The Pearl-Qatar. “So, in order to pay for school and buy some of the nice things in life that I like – cars, clothes and stereo equipment – I had to work while going to school.”

Although he held several jobs during his time at university, it was during his final year, as a sales clerk at a clothing store, that he was introduced to the world of retail and brands. From this initial exposure to the world of fashion buyers began the career trajectory that saw him headhunted by the DFS Group, the world’s leading luxury travel retailer, in Hong Kong, and then to his current position at The Pearl-Qatar.

“I love brands and I love product,” he enthuses, “and the thrill of visiting retail stores will always be with me. In my career, I reached a stage where I had to evolve into more strategy and planning…But I have never lost the passion for visiting stores, or seeing the retail scene in a new city, or being in a brand’s showroom.”

Indeed, Martin’s early years on the sales floor in the US have proven invaluable, giving him tremendous insight into understanding buyer behaviour and their changing needs, “The customer on the East Coast was a certain type of customer,” he explains. “They were professionals, vacationing in the Bahamas or Bermuda or Florida, so they were buying certain types of clothing – vacation clothes or clothes for work – and they weren’t as ‘dressed’ as someone in Europe would be. I lived for a while in Asia, and again, that’s a different customer, with different consumer behaviour patterns.”

But from the East Coast of the US, to Hong Kong, to Qatar, there are certain brands that people always want, brands that appeal to a broad spectrum of nationalities – Salvatore Ferragamo and Giorgio Armani, for example. And in Qatar, a country with a fast-growing economy, one of the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world, and an exploding population with a taste for all things unique and expensive, Martin has found the perfect project.

“At The Pearl-Qatar, we are working on filling two hundred thousand square metres of space, across three retail precincts. We have approximately 100,000 square metres of space in Porto Arabia, 60,000 square metres in Medina Centrale, and 40,000 square metres in Qanat Quartier.”

He continues, “If you realise that where we’re sitting right now was water in 2004, it’s so exciting that just seven years later, we have 100 operating units (stores, restaurants, banks, etcetera) approximately 6000 residents, and by December we’ll have 65 additional  units, and by next March, an estimated 230 units. When you look at seven years, to go from the sea to this… it’s fantastic.”

Martin explains that Qatar has luxury branded fashion stores, but is underdeveloped, and needed to evolve to the next level.  The Pearl-Qatar is providing the platform for this needed evolution, with a world class island residential and resort development, providing a luxurious setting – geographically and image-wise – for international brands.

“The luxury market in Qatar, in my view, was born in the world of watches, jewellery and cars, with companies like Al Fardan, Al Majeed and Ali Bin Ali bringing the world’s prestigious watch and jewellery brands to Qatar. With cars, I have heard that Qatar is Ferrari’s second market in the world, if figured on a per capita basis, only surpassed by Switzerland, the market leader.

“For fashion luxury,” he continues, “clothing accessories such as shoes and handbags, cosmetics and fragrance, the first foray into the market were multi-brand stores such as Salam Stores and the Blue Salon Store, who began to create cosmetic departments in their stores, and departments selling international fashion brands.

“One of the large shopping centres in Doha took Qatar to the next step with the opening of a new wing a few years ago. This gave a venue to large international brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Burberry and Gucci to enter the market, and it is a certainty that brands will continue to open stores in Qatar as the growth continues.”

And that expected growth – of both Qatar’s economy and the local population – is what’s bringing a twinkle to the eye of luxury brands. “The population has already doubled to 1.7 million over the last six years. If you extrapolate that across the next six or seven years, your target market for a project like The Pearl-Qatar, with its balance of high-end stores, and popular priced, high demand brands is very promising.”

Discussing the future of this tiny peninsula, with its plans for hotels and retail space, Martin is optimistic but realistic. “Part of what we need for Qatar, and part of what is going to help soak up the added retail space coming on the market, is tourism. We need tourism.

“Today, there are approximately 7500  four- and five-star quality rooms in Qatar, with an estimated 5000 rooms in the immediate pipeline, Out of the rooms in the pipeline, 1100 rooms, are due to open here at The Pearl-Qatar in six five-star hotels, including a Four Seasons Resort, Kempinski Resort, and a Nikki Beach Hotel. Yet, I’ve heard estimates that we’ll need 55,000 rooms in total by 2022.

“If you look at the new malls being planned, the increase in tourism, and the growing population, in order to create a business that is sustainable for the long term, past the 2020 World Cup, you need to build projects that will keep people coming to the country.

“The government has been very supportive of The Pearl-Qatar because it’s so iconic for the country, a destination and lifestyle not only for residents, but one for tourists too, especially as we open our hotels.”

Beyond the hotel projects though, The Pearl-Qatar will also be expanding the brands it offers, and is set to move beyond luxury retail in order to cater for residents and visitors alike. “What we’re opening from now through Spring 2012, in the newer sections, will be mid-range popular brands. So you’ll have brands that will appeal to a much broader market, driving additional traffic here.”

Martin confirms that restaurants, convenience stores, and services such as banks are earmarked to open for The Pearl-Qatar’s residents in the future.

“Residents have specific needs, so we’re putting in a laundry service, an alterations shop… In Medina Centrale, we’ll likely have a little shop doing keycutting and shoe repair, etcetera. We’ll have a 500-square-metre Spinneys convenience market in Porto Arabia, and we are building a 4000-square-metre Spinneys flagship supermarket in Medina Centrale.”

Much of The Pearl-Qatar’s appeal is that it is such a different experience to spending time in a shopping mall. “You have customers coming here that like the environment. We’re not a traditional shopping mall, we’re indoor-outdoor,” says Martin, explaining the appeal of walking along The Croisette, and then visiting a building that houses the likes of Ferragamo and the Rolls-Royce showroom.

“For  up to nine months of the year, it’s beautiful weather at The Pearl-Qatar, so this indoor-outdoor experience is a plus for us. People come here for that experience, the setting, and yes, they’re attracted by the brands and the restaurants.”

Core customers include local Qataris, visiting Gulf Cooperation Council Arabs, such as Kuwaiti, and Emiratis, as well as Saudi Arabians, followed by affluent expatriates.

“This customer base will become more diverse on the island as we open Spinneys and popular priced brands that have broad customer appeal,” such as the Reebok, Puma and Adidas, all set for standalone stores in the near-future.

Naturally, many of the international brands have to adapt their strategies for the local market, while staying true to their image and brand ‘DNA’. For example, Martin mentions that more long dresses are sold in Qatar than would be in Europe or the US.

“We request brands to add more long dresses when planning their collections and they comply due to the demand from our market and from other Arabian countries. Another example is Ferragamo, who added higher heels on some of their women’s models due to demands from our market.”

There are local challenges that have to be taken into account as well, with finding top-notch sales staff at the top of the list. “[Finding sales staff] who have a fashion sense, are savvy and sophisticated, and who can handle demanding customers in a polished and diplomatic manner, is probably our greatest challenge. We have been steadily improving at this over the last 24 months, and are making really excellent progress. We now have a staff trainer in place who works with our staff on everything from dealing with customers to grooming to product knowledge training.”

A second challenge is a little tougher to tackle. “Our sales cycle falls mainly between September and May, due to the fact that local Qataris leave Qatar for a large part of the summer, and expatriates are on vacation. And in the last few years, Ramadan falls in this period as well. But this is a fact of life in Qatar, and we adjust our buying around that. It simply shortens our fall selling season for fashion goods.”

Challenges aside, Martin is passionate not only about The Pearl-Qatar, but also about retail and the experience that both have afforded the residents of Qatar. “I love brands, I love product, and I love being in retail stores – the ambience and seeing product being looked at by customers.

“The Pearl-Qatar is a wonderful project and I like talking to brands about it. I am proud of the fact that The Pearl-Qatar has opened leading international brands that are a first in Qatar. Brands such as Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli, Ferragamo, Etro, and others in such a gorgeous and prestigious setting. There is no question that The Pearl-Qatar is on its way to being the leading icon of luxury for a Riviera lifestyle for residents and visitors, combining resorts, shopping venues, restaurants and entertainment, parks and schools in a totally landscaped and planned community.”

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 3.8-9, August/September, 2011.




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