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French Version

New Beirut mall struggles to attract shoppers

Can Beiruti consumers really support another luxury shopping complex?

Based on The Daily Star's visit to the conspicuously empty, seven-month-old Boulevard Mall in Sin al-Fil, the answer would appear to be "no."

Granted, it was a weekday, but even during lunch hour, very few visitors frequented the 11 cafes and restaurants and 90 stores occupying the Parisian-themed, 25,000-square-meter mall adjacent to the Habtoor Grand Hotel.

Brian Hatoum, assistant manager of the clothing store Koton, said Tuesday's turnout was about 75 percent of the maximum traffic he has seen since Boulevard opened in September. He cited holidays, the end of the month, and rainy weather as the best business days.

Despite the dearth of potential customers, the mood among salespeople was not entirely glum. Some believe the complex is just experiencing routine growing pains and will find its feet during the upcoming tourist season, while others think a lackluster marketing campaign has sealed Boulevard's fate as the underdog of Beirut's burgeoning mall market.

"They opened in a dead season," Nabil Aftimos said from behind the counter at the Columbiano Coffee House, "Besides, ABC took one year to attract customers. Things will start picking up this month, I'm sure, as long as the political situation is calm."

But others said this type of optimism was "wishful thinking" and faulted management for not having mounted a sufficient advertising campaign.

One salesperson from a high-end jewelry store said receipts had been so dismal at the brand's Boulevard branch that they not a single sale was recorded on Monday - even though it was the Prophet Mohammad's birthday and holidays are traditionally the best business days.

"Everyone asks; 'Why should we go to Boulevard when it's always empty?' People want to see people when they go to malls, to socialize, to meet pretty girls," the salesperson said. "Management hasn't done a good job. There's been no advertising, marketing, nothing."

The employee said Boulevard needed technology shops to attract young people, and argued that there should be a movie theater and more restaurants to make the mall more of a leisure destination. Another misstep was including informal, artisans' stalls on the same level as the expensive prt-a-porter collections and jewelry. Though some of the hand-made decoupage boxes decorated with the faces of Arab leaders carry price tags of up to $120, he complained that "they bring the whole floor down."

According to the sales representative the most egregious error was not initially providing free parking, prompting patrons to go to one of Beirut's two other malls, ABC and City Mall. Though management has since rectified the mistake, Boulevard "has a reputation for being empty," said another salesperson.

Mall manager Walid Saarti said that the Boulevard team had stepped up its marketing campaign. In addition to billboard, television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements, they have turned to more aggressive techniques like entertainment events targeted at specific consumers, including concerts, last month's Mothers Day fashion show, and an upcoming art show.

But Saarti also warned against "misinterpreting" the current situation.

"We don't see it as slow. All malls have a period after opening when the traffic is light, and then it builds up," he told The Daily Star in a telephone interview "There are only three malls operating in Lebanon and we're the newest one, so if you take the amount of time it took us to lease space and develop traffic, we're doing relatively well."

Beirut 18-04-2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star

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