By Richard Abbott, Tim Addington and Steven Wrelton
Shopping is not just a daily chore in the Middle East - it's a national pastime, with the region hosting some of the world's biggest malls. And it is an increasingly useful option for advertisers too
When it comes to shopping malls in the Middle East, the figures are mind-boggling. Driven by the GCC countries, the number of shoppers, shopping malls and money going through retailer's tills is going through the roof.
According to Retail International, an independent retail consultant specialising in the Arab world, the amount of retail floorspace in the GCC, which stood at 22 million sq ft in 2000, will stand at more than 135 million sq ft by 2010.
This growth is being led by Dubai. Not content with having the biggest mall in the Middle East, the 2.4 million sq ft Mall of the Emirates, construction is underway on three even bigger projects: the creekside Festival City; the Dubai Mall at the Burj Dubai; and the 5.9 million sq ft Mall of Arabia in Dubailand.
The likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait also have plans in place for mega malls, but experts says they are still some way behind Dubai in the retail evolutionary chain.
The reason that mall developers are so intent on building their shopping metropolises in the region is the youthfulness and comparative wealth of the burgeoning population. In Dubai, the continued population boom will drive even more customers into the emirate's malls.
And it's not just developers and retailers who are licking their lips. Outdoor media owners have spotted an opportunity to target consumers while they are in a spending frame of mind, and mall advertising is emerging as a lucrative avenue for them. Advertisers have leapt on this opportunity to target shoppers when they are so close to the point of purchase.
"Shopping culture in this part of the world is intergrated into everyone's life. People shop. It is what they do," says Anurag Tripathi, general manager, mall promotions and media at Al Futtaim Shopping Malls.
He sells advertising at seven malls in the Middle East, including four in the UAE, such as Dubai's Mall of the Emirates and Deira City Centre. He says the average resident spends three hours inside a mall on each visit.
This gives them plenty of time to see the advertising messages that are positioned on the walls, floors and even the ceilings of the mall.
"I remember the late 90s, when we used to just sell floor space for people to have stands to promote their products and then leave. Today, we have 15 elements, which range from floor space to banners, branded escalators and posters. We are even looking at electronic options like plasma TVs and light boxes," says Tripathi.
"A company running an outdoor campaign can now extend that campaign into the mall."
Those who sell advertising space within malls argue that shoppers are in a 'spending mood' when they are in the mall, which will make them more predisposed towards products that they see advertised.
"The benefits of using mall or in-store advertising are obvious," says Sakib Afridi, associate creative director at TBWARaad, Dubai. "You're reaching consumers in an environment and state of mind where they are the most likely to purchase."
Tripathi adds: "You get direct interaction with consumers that are there to spend money. You are talking to people who are pre-occupied with the idea of spending money. You are going there to enjoy yourself. The consumer mindset is happy. They are more likely to want to experience new things. There is every chance that if the consumer accepts the ad, they can then go and buy it right away.
"If you advertise a mobile phone, there are five opportunities to buy it within a few hundred metres."
Samer Choucair, managing director of Dynacom, which provides plasma screens for shops in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, says: "At the same time you have point-of-purchase benefits. Of the people who take the purchase decision, 70% of them have taken that decision at the point-of-sale."
He says the fragmentation of traditional media is playing into the hands of mall-based media.
"Our market is being more and more fragmented by the day, so you need to have very specific targeted advertising and the mass media doesn't cut it any more," he says. "Now you can have one supermarket in a chain having a different promotion depending on the demographic. That is a tool that is extremely beneficial."
For manufacturers of products, getting their message under consumers' noses just before they enter stores is a not-to-be-missed opportunity.
Rod Maxfield, managing director for the Arabian Gulf at Unilever Arabia, says in-store advertising is a key component of his campaigns.
"The recent mushrooming of shopping malls in the region is something we at Unilever recognise as a major new media opportunity. We need to be more visible outside the mall supermarket or hypermarket and widen our "touch points" beyond the direct points of purchase," he says. "In-store advertising is becoming particularly important given the fast changes taking place in retailing globally, specifically the overall trends towards consolidation and market share growth of large international retailers."
Sounds simple enough, but effective in-store advertising is not just about sticking a mupi in the middle of a walkway, or standing on a sponsored podium spraying perfume.
Afridi says the key is to achieve the perfect balance between brand character and the idea that represents it. "It's the magic potion for any medium of advertising, really," he says.
Maxfield says: "In order to make in-store activity successful, it should follow the spirit of a 360 degree campaign. We will always strive for one great idea for both our communication and in-store activities in a holistic way.
"In addition to a strong idea that is central to all the activities, a stunning visual identity should act as 'glue' for the campaign."
He uses the example of a recent in-store campaign for Dove Fresh Touch, which was largely built on advertising and packaging language. "This provided consistency, a sense of quality and leveraged the bird as the brand icon," he explains,
Tripathi says Al Futtaim is always encouraging its clients to be innovative. "You don't want to do what someone else has done before. The key is to have the latest products advertised and to deliver it to the consumer in the shortest time," he says.
As the region's malls get ever bigger, Unilever has started working with mall owners to produce creative campaigns, going beyond the standard allocated display space.
At the Abu Dhabi Marina Mall entrance, it created a pyramid out of 3100 full boxes of Omo washing powder, the equivalent of 12 truckloads.
"This created huge interest, footfall for the mall and generated great PR," says Maxfield.
But despite successful promotions like this, in-mall advertising is still viewed as the less glamorous side of marketing, with many agencies and clients preferring to spend budget on above-the-line media.
Reliable research into consumer touchpoints should change this attitude, as it would be likely to show the amount of time that people spend interacting with shopping malls.
"Old habits die hard," says Al Futtaim's Tripathi. "Agencies like what we do but they say that they have to do more traditional things. A campaign needs TV and print, I know, but they do overlook us. It is not in all the media plans yet."
Unilever's Maxfield sympathises with their viewpoint. "Yes, in this part of the world, the tendency has been to use above-the-line advertising, particularly television, to ensure mass reach."
But he believes the days of the 30-second ad are numbered, and brand management teams are looking for new ways of reaching their target market.
"We recognise that a campaign is not a complete 360 without having some kind of in-store leg to it. Even a campaign such as Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which was intended to build an emotional connection and build brand equity, was significantly strengthened in countries where there was strong in-store activity supporting it.
"In-store activity will always be a key strategic thrust in our roll-out plans and should be given a fair share to amplify above-the-line support."
Most clients, agencies and media owners agree that in-mall advertising is on the grow, but a major problem for its proponents is the lack of accountability for campaigns. How, for example, can a soft drink manufacturer isolate a sampling stand's effect on a 15% sales uplift?
TBWARaad's Afridi says: "Like most modes of communication, sales is probably just one of the measures. The memorability factor, in my opinion, is the true measure of success."
"That is a tough one," admits Tripathi. "Campaign-based research is very tough in a retail environment.
"Some of our smart clients who want to know where their money is going do surveys. We don't own the product so it is up to the product owner to ask the consumer how they came up with the decision to buy."
Maxfield agrees that manufacturers most go the extra mile to get the most out of in-mall activity.
"Our brand teams are starting to go beyond sales and stock availability as performance measurement and will focus on the impact of the promotion in connecting with wider brand, social and environmental issues, which form an integral part of the brand mission and business strategy.
"Brands today need to connect with their consumers at a deeper level and in so doing will gain competitive and sales advantage."
Choucair says the use of screen-based media can save clients on their production costs.
"In the long run it becomes cheaper," he says. "Screen and hardware costs are coming down dramatically. Even if you use the screens to display static images, you will still be saving money in the long run in large chains, without having to print 200 to 300 posters every time they have a promotion.
"You are taking sales before and after at two different stores, let's say. At one store you run the promotion and at the other you don't and you see the impact. It is very simple and it is easier to measure than static because it is quicker.
"You can change the promotion every day and see the effect on the sales relatively to another store. We have seen sales increases of about 60% in some cases where dynamic signage was used as opposed to no promotion in another store."
With so much going on inside shopping malls, concerns have inevitably been raised over clutter. How can consumers notice one particular message when they are being blitzed from all directions? Won't they just switch off?
"They already have," says Afridi. "And we, as advertisers, should look at this as an opportunity to reach out to the customer in more personalised ways where actually we affect their lives and not simply slap them across their face with a logo. Brands should bring benefits to consumers' lives and not cause allergic reactions that make them run away."
Choucair says the wheat needs to be sorted from the chaff.
"There is a constant increase in advertising everywhere you look, whether it is outdoor or indoor. The idea of digital signage would be to tidy that mess up. Remove danglers, remove the sort of media that has become clutter and replace it with a more attractive medium."
Whether plasma screens carrying advertising is attractive is a debatable point, but there is no doubt that new electronic media are playing their part in disrupting the routine of shoppers while they are in the mall.
This kind of advertising heightens the multi-sensory experience of visiting a shopping mall, where shops, cafes, cinemas and leisure facilities jostle for the consumer's attention.
Afridi says: "I was recently in Shanghai where I saw something quite innovative in a mall, an interactive 3D screen showing products where you could virtually experience them. It kept me busy for a good 10 minutes a lifetime for a consumer."
Choucair adds: "Just like any new media it takes a while for planners and advertisers to see the benefit of it. In the past year or so there has been a huge shift towards in store digital signage because the benefits have been proven. There were a few clients that tested it out at the beginning and it worked well for them and now everybody is going after it."
Such confidence in his media will boost Dynacom's chances of appearing on the media plan no end. And with FMCG giants like Unilever increasing their focus on in-store advertising, the future for mall advertising companies looks secured.
U Reporting by Richard Abbott, Tim Addington and Steven Wrelton.