The space for women in retail

Women are the biggest influencers in retail. But does the retail industry in the Middle East have enough women in senior management and does it provide enough opportunities for women entrepreneurs?  Business journalist and news anchor Shaily Chopra moderated the discussion on the issue, the panel comprising Debbie Stanford Kristiansen, CEO, Novo Cinemas; Sophie Katirai, founder and CEO, Sophie’s Closet; Mona Attaya, founder and CEO, Mumzworld.com; and Sarah Appleton, founder and CEO, Mini Exchange.

Men buy, but women shop. So it’s women who influence buying decisions in almost every product category. Which means the primary customer base is female. Retail success depends crucially on how women think. But does the retail industry have enough women entrepreneurs or senior managers to address and influence its biggest customer segment? What are the opportunities available to them to charter the future growth of the retail industry in the Middle East?

Women are the spenders, controlling $350 billion of the region’s wealth and deciding what the household will spend across all horizontals, observes Attaya, founder and CEO, Mumzworld.com, which is a pure-play online vertical for mother, baby and child products.

“Whether they carry their own credit cards or their husband’s … the reality is women are the ones punching in the numbers,” she quips.

Women make decisions not just for themselves, but the whole family, influencing about 70% of decisions on average across all aspects, whether its vacation or what home to choose, adds Debbie Stanford Kristiansen, CEO of Novo Cinemas Kristiansen. “Talking of movies, they like to check what’s coming and what’s suitable for their children,” she says.

Are businesses set up by women more empathetic and caring or is there no difference, was a question posed to the panellists by Mark Thomson, retail industry director (EMEA) for Zebra Technologies. “Women have that balance of empathy, and it’s the right balance. It doesn’t mean we’re the soft touch but it means we address problems, issues and opportunities in a different way than our male counterparts,” responded Kristiansen.

Attaya knows what it takes to be a woman in the male-dominated world of retail. “Women’s requirements in a job are often times different from those of men, especially if they are mothers. I’m a mother of three, so I have to constantly juggle my roles as CEO, manager, owner, wife and mother. What’s important in our culture is to instil respect for the difference. Our organisation has set-up the DNA to accept and respect the difference. I think that’s very important,” she emphasises.

Kristiansen says she’s experienced little discrimination in being a woman in senior management. “I’ve always worked for inspiring men who’ve given me opportunity and support. It’s not just in the Middle East, I’m talking about globally. I feel very fortunate. I don’t feel like I’m treated any differently because I’m a woman,” she comments.

Kristiansen is keen on forwarding the same opportunities to other women on her staff. “As a leader, I have the responsibility to develop and mentor other women. For example, we recently introduced a ‘cinema manager trainee programme for women’. It’s an attempt to change the perception that only men can take on the role of a cinema manager because it involves late hours and a lot of stress,” she elaborates.

“We now have our first two trainees – one in UAE and one in Qatar – starting next month and I want to see them grow,” Kristiansen adds.

It doesn’t mean her group is purely focused on women. “What I’m focused on is making sure we have the right person in the right job – whether a guy or a woman,” she says.

Sarah Appleton, founder and CEO of Mini Exchange, is another woman entrepreneur who reports little discrimination in the Middle East retail scene. “I’ve found a huge amount of support from colleagues and others in the industry. I don’t think I’d have had this level of support in the UK. So out here I’ve been very surprised by that,” declares the Dubai-based British entrepreneur.

Appleton heads an all-woman staff in the region’s first platform – an online outlet mall – to focus on discounted fashion kidswear. “It’s a very open environment in our office. Women shoppers need all the details and they want a level of intimacy and personal contact with the organisation, which we really try and give on all levels of our service,” she says.

Talking about reaching out to women through the media, Attaya says, “It’s very important to reach your consumer at all the touch-points she frequents.  A mother is obviously at the school, the play areas, the hospital. So, it’s important to be at these touch-points.”

She believes social media is also very important to establish brand credibility and brand engagement. “For example, if all my friends like Mumzworld.com, I have another level of trust in the brand. It’s a strong medium that gives you instant access to visuals,” Attaya points out.

Sophie Katirai, founder and CEO of Sophie’s Closet, an online fashion jewellery and accessories store launched in the turbulent financial times of 2008-09 whose customers are 90% women, agrees on the power of social media. “Our customers come to us when they learn about new trends and fashion. We keep them informed through social media about what’s seen on whom, so that’s how they come to us,” she says.

Adds Kristiansen, “Since women make decisions not just for themselves but for the family, keeping them informed through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is essential for us.”

To ensure brand loyalty, Appleton’s Mini Exchange tries to engage with its female customers, giving them exactly what they want. “We work hard on our digital side to track what they buy and how they buy. We’re looking to provide them with what products they want,” she says.

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