By Manar Al Hinai
Manar Al Hinai, an award-winning Emirati writer and entrepreneur, talks to Khadija Lajam, founder of Chateau De Sable, to learn many interesting facts about her homegrown children’s wear boutique, including how customers in the GCC differ from the rest of the world.
What I believe makes a great business idea is if it stems from a personal experience – if the owner, for instance, was frustrated with a problem and launched their business as a solution. When I launched my communications consultancy a couple of years ago, I did so because I wanted to assist businesses to better communicate to the Emirati market, as I saw many failing to do so. It was because of an experience that I went through, that made sense to me to combine my passion with filling a gap in the market.
For Khadija Lajam, things were not so different. At 24, she never imagined herself owning a children’s wear boutique, but the Emirati mother of two, went through troubles finding the right garments for her kids. That is how she and her partner Stephanie Lemaire launched Chateau De Sable, which means Sand Castle. Six years later, during which they have started operating in 17 countries around the world, Khadija talks to us about her business success.
Children’s wear boutique may not be the first choice for many entrepreneurs, especially in the UAE. What triggered you to launch this business?
I never saw myself owning a children’s wear boutique when I was younger. When I had my first child, things changed for me. Clothes had unfortunately become so commercial and everything was either mass produced, hindering quality or, on the other end of the spectrum, there were lots of expensive designer baby clothes. Experience showed me that there was a gap in the market of affordable clothes made with, as cheesy as it sounds, love. Good quality clothes made for moms by other moms who wanted to bring nothing but the best materials available without compromising on comfort and quality.
How long has your business been established?
We have been open in the UAE for six years now. We started in Abu Dhabi and opened our flagship store in the Dubai Mall about four years ago. Currently we operate three branches in the UAE and 20 braches worldwide.
What age groups do you cater to?
We have clothes for newborns to 14 year olds. The design team puts a lot of thought when it comes to matching style with age. For example, if a dress would look more appropriate on a younger child, we stop production at, let’s say eight-year-olds, but generally we go up to 14-year-olds for most designs.
With many international brands available in the market, how do you stand out from the crowd?
We add a personal touch to our brand. We offer services that customers would expect from a more luxurious high-end brand while keeping our product offering affordable. Our fabrics are sourced from all over the world to deliver the best we can to the customer.
It is challenging as a lot of international brands have more edge or priority when it comes to marketing or space in malls, however the customers now are different. Although, disposable income has risen, the customer now looks for value. They want what they are promised so if you are going to charge a premium, they do want to see it in the actual product they are purchasing.
What was the main reason behind your success?
Tailoring our high quality, chic products to our customers’ needs and providing a niche helped for sure. Being patient as a business owner really helped. We were not quick to open with anyone who offered a space. We conducted research, counting heads at locations and the type of people who patronage these places as well.
What marketing channels have you found to be most effective in marketing your business?
There is a greater emphasis now on social media, but our most important and effective marketing is word of mouth. If your customers like your product, they will pass on the information to their friends.
However, we recently faced great success on social media, especially through Instagram. We have customers coming in daily asking for garments that they have seen posted on Instagram. We plan to invest more in social media and take our social media presence to the next level.
What were the main challenges that you faced as you started?
There were only a handful of malls in Abu Dhabi. It was challenging to find a space that had visibility and that would suit our brand image. When we found our home, we were faced with other challenges, such as human resources and the fit out of the shop. We had hands-on approach and I personally helped with paint and the finishing and we did not stop until we were happy. We also had to interview many candidates until we found the perfect sales team. We are proud to say that the “opening team” is still with us today.
How do customers in the UAE compare to others in markets that you operate in?
As there are a lot of nationalities, there are a lot of preferences and tastes in the buying behaviour and sales approach. For example, an Arab customer would rarely purchase very revealing garments for their children yet others would. So, this was a challenge in designing and stocking the right garment design and quantity.
Service approach differed as well so in training the staff, we have to do exercises that taught them how to deal with different nationalities. For example, some would prefer some space and some would prefer a lot of attention.
Do you find that customers’ behaviour in Dubai and Abu Dhabi differ?
Yes. In the Dubai Mall we have more tourists and their behaviour is different from a regular customer. In Dubai, customers look for winter or summer garments any time of the year, whereas in Abu Dhabi, we put weather into serious consideration when choosing garments to display. Tourists buy less, maybe two pieces on average, whereas a resident sometimes comes in looking for an entire wardrobe.
Does the UAE/GCC market require a different kind of marketing approach when communicating to them in comparison to the other markets you operate in?
In the UAE, Instagram is a bigger platform than Facebook is in France. Our customers in the UAE are reluctant to give away their email addresses for fear of spamming, whereas in France the customers appreciate bi-monthly newsletters. Also, marketing through mobile phones is a big thing here, whereas in Europe it can be too invasive.
What advice would you provide start-up entrepreneurs in the GCC as they look to launch their businesses?
My advice would be to go for their dreams, to shut out any discouragement yet to listen. The fear of asking always stops people in the GCC, but you can get a lot of information from people to help you start up.
Also, do not be afraid to lead by example. You have to know all aspects of your business, be it store keeping, taking inventories or even housekeeping.
I have, on many occasions, stood in my shop and sold to the customers. I always enjoyed and benefited from listening to the customers and asking what they need from me.
It is okay to make mistakes as well. That is the only way to grow.