UK retailer Marks & Spencer serves up fashion and food – and a bit of fresh too for UAE shoppers

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Part of the revamped Marks & Spencer location at Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi. Here too, the retailer has gone big on the Cafe concept. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A lot of fashion and fabrics, throw in some food choices, and stock up on the fresh – the UK retailer Marks & Spencer has got its mix just right for its newly revamped stores in the UAE.

Fresh produce – and sourced from the right farms – is building to be quite the trend in the UAE retail space, and that’s what M&S is intent on delivering. Going forward, that would also mean sourcing as much of these from local growers, according to a senior official with the retailer.

“There’s so much more we can do to enhance the fresh choices,” said Nick Batey, General Manager at M&S MENA. “Obvious one is to localize – right now, around 70 per cent of what we stock is imported. But that’s fine because it gives our shoppers something different they didn’t have anywhere else.”

M&S has used the pandemic months to relaunch vastly expanded stores at The Dubai Mall and, now, at Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi. The Yas location is now all of 25,000 square feet, lending itself to fit in a 1,500 square foot café as well. (The Yas Mall and its centralised location also helps M&S with its app-based food and grocery order-and-delivery.)

A significant amount of change for the retail sector was packed into last year – I would say five years’ worth of change in one year

– Nick Batey, General Manager of Marks & Spencer MENA

It’s all in the ‘dwell’

Batey says it’s about giving shoppers that extra reason for to favour a visit to an M&S location rather than head to a competition. “The ‘dwell time’ at the store is all important for clothing retail – if the Café gives shoppers an incentive to stay longer, it adds up for us as the retailer,” he said.

“The Café is the prominent feature than what it would have been previously. We adjusted the size of our clothes and food area mix accordingly. If customers are saying they love our food and want to have it in-store, it reflects changes in consumer behaviour. It doesn’t mean the clothing mix is getting smaller.”

This is the tactic employed by the UK brand at The Dubai Mall, when the 33,000 square feet store opened in June last year. (In fact, this was one of the first major brick-and-store facility to open after the lockdown phase related to controlling the COVID-19 spread.)

The next phase for all physical store retailers is about understanding what’s changed with shopper habits – “Market is still facing uncertainty over how consumers will shop – the pieces are still up in the air,” he added. “There is still no knowing what is the right thing for retailers to do.

“But those pieces in the air will start settling – and this is where being the agile retailer is crucial. It’s not enough to stay in touch with the market… more important is knowing what the consumer demands of you.”

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Food options and the cafe can help with the ‘dwell time’ at the store, and that eventually works in favour of the retailer. At the Yas Mall, the food mix has seen 1,100 new grocery lines, including the addition of over 400 chilled food products as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. Image Credit: Supplied

Omnichannel ways

M&S’ local operations already have the online channel going, where shoppers can choose from the merchandise available in the UK and then pick them up here. “Yes, the digital business has grown significantly – we are never going backwards on that,” said Batey. “It’s providing our shoppers and us options not just on clothes but with the food range too. This is what omnichannel delivers.”