Ahmed, clad in an elegant black suit, smiles from behind a fine display of cosmetics at a department store in Dubai, but most shoppers glance quickly and dash away, with only a few reaching the cashier.
Like many retail workers in the Gulf Arab emirate, Ahmed feels the Dubai Shopping Festival — an annual month-long sales extravaganza starting in mid-January — is not the same this year because of the global financial crisis.
“During last year’s festival, customers used to buy a whole set of perfume, shower gel, body lotion and other additions. Instead, this year we would be really thankful if they bought just the perfume,” Ahmed said as he adjusted his tie. “You just have to do a lot of convincing for them to actually buy stuff.”
This year even enticements such as raffles for luxury cars, apartments or even gold are failing to make people open their purses and wallets.
“We don’t feel there is a shopping festival anymore. We have experienced days [during the festival] that are even slower than normal days last year, let alone last year’s shopping festival,” Ahmed said.
Dubai, one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has enjoyed a six-year boom as a financial and tourism hub, but in recent months consumer appetite has been battered by the global economic downturn.
Over the years, the annual festival, seen as a key barometer of Dubai’s economy, has been popular both with tourists and the country’s resident population, lured by the emirate’s tax-free status and glitzy mega malls.
The festival “accounts for 25 percent of the annual sales of some retailers, but this year the mood is certainly more quiet in the malls and the traders will not see the peaks of previous years,” said Trevor Lloyd-Jones, managing editor of Business Intelligence Middle East. “Consumers in the UAE are spending less and some major retailers have said their sales are currently down 20 percent.”
Retailers from various trades said they had witnessed a drop in footfall, per-customer spending and number of tourists. Shopkeepers estimated sales are down 20 percent to 50 percent, a drop that could not be independently verified.
Laila Suhail, chief executive of the festival’s office, said that although footfall at malls has increased this year, consumers were spending less.
“Consumers are spending less, but spending wisely,” she said.
A survey by Mastercard forecast that consumer confidence in the UAE was set to dip in the first half of this year.
Dubai, where expatriates make up more than 80 percent of an estimated population of 2 million, has suffered jobs cuts and a stock market rout and is facing forecasts of economic slowdown.
The city-state does not have much oil, but hydrocarbons are the main source of income for the UAE, which is the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter. The slump in global prices has affected business confidence in Dubai.
At the Mall of the Emirates, most people shopping over the weekend — when throughput is supposed to be at its peak — are barely holding a shopping bag or two, pushing carts that are only half full or even just window-shopping. No pushing or shoving at the fitting room or lining at the tills.
Even the “70 percent discount” signs plastered on shop facades are failing to generate the hype of the previous years’ festivals.
A drop in tourist numbers has also contributed to sluggish sales, retailers said. Tourist expenditure is a key source of income for the emirate, which enjoys year-long sunshine and luxury hotels.