Be prepared for change and take calculated risks, recommends Isobel Abulhoul, co-founder of the 45-year old UAE-based bookstore chain Magrudy’s. Abulhoul elaborates on how the Magrudy’s family business is surviving the crisis, while strengthening the business model to stay relevant and ahead of the innovation curve.
World-over several retail organisations, family businesses included, are finding themselves in an “unchartered territory” amidst new regulations and new consumption patterns. This has required retailers to act fast, taking calculated risks.
“The current time is undoubtedly tough. But, if you think about it, in retail there is always risk, irrespective of a crisis,” Abulhoul opines. “Our product curation – be that books, toys, stationery, art & craft in our case – must appeal to the consumer. The channels we use to sell must be relevant for the consumer. In this regard, our online channel has proved to be an absolute lifeline, helping us to reach our customers at their doorsteps when they couldn’t step out. Our online sales increased dramatically, especially during the lockdown. And soon we will launch a new and more friendly e-commerce website.”
Magrudy’s is one of the first bookstore chains in the UAE to have rolled out an online presence, which has been continuously improved over time, with large product assortment and prompt delivery. Almost 90% of the orders are delivered the next day. The browsing experience has been enhanced for consumers to easily select their choicest products for purchasing.
Having said that Abulhoul believes that brick-and-mortar retail will always be “relevant,” but the environment might have to be “reimagined” from time-to-time. What has happened, however, is a higher reliance on proximity shopping. People are now looking for their favourite corner shops.
“We have recently opened a new Magrudy’s store in Motor City at the Waitrose complex, which is doing quite well,” Abulhoul shares. “Customers are looking for a corner shop experience, which offers a core selection of goods in a small environment. This wasn’t a big trend in the UAE until now, as much as in countries like the UK. However, we are fortunate to have a good balance in terms of locations with satellite and flagship stores across the emirates, complemented by our online channel.”
Magrudy’s is currently present in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah with different sized stores. “Besides, being quite well spread out in the UAE, we are as flexible as possible in our approach,” Abulhoul points out. “For instance, our flagship store in Jumeirah performed quite well during the lockdown, even delivering orders to consumers waiting in their cars. The community-focused shopping experience has also worked well, as our Jumeirah store is located alongside Spinneys, Lime Tree Café etc. What we are also doing is ensuring constant newness at Magrudy’s through our product assortment. Over the past few months, we have noticed a huge uptick in demand for games, art & craft materials, children’s books, classic, fiction as well as books on wellbeing and politics and study aids. And we have quickly responded to these demands.”
Having been in business for over four decades, Magrudy’s has seen other regional and global crises, but the current one being a health has required a different approach. Abulhoul agrees. “We have seen the Gulf War, when a large number of expatriates had left. I still remember we were nervous back then, but we didn’t cancel any order. And we benefitted from that calculated risk, as people started coming back and demand picked up.”
“Having said that, today, being faced with a health pandemic required us to take a completely different approach, following all the required health and safety guidelines,” she continues. “We have had to ensure that every space – including our stores, office and warehouse – is frequently sanitised and safe to operate. Importantly, from the very beginning, we ensured that our people understood why these guidelines are so crucial to follow. But even this time, we have kept the momentum high, while developing multiple contingency plans to be able to manage our cash flow, protect our people, sustain the business and serve the customers.”
“We don’t know what the future holds. We couldn’t have planned crisis management for COVID-19. But what we have learnt from this pandemic is to be prepared for change and take calculated risks, while being flexible in our approach,” Abulhoul concludes.
Besides being the co-founder of Magrudy’s, Isobel Abulhoul is also the CEO and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation.