Straight from home: Retailing ‘Made in Philippine’ products in UAE

August 22, 2023 | By Anurima Das

Lito German, Chief Executive Officer (right) and Mark Mauricio the Chief Operating Officer (left), SandBox Middle East

The Sari Sari stores in the Middle East will showcase top brands and products that you know and love – combined with discoveries that will keep you coming back for more.  From basic needs to delectable snacks, from top brands to homegrown products – the brand will offer a carefully curated range of grocery items from various regions in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

A new name in the retail landscape of the Middle East, we spoke to Lito German, Chief Executive Officer and Mark Mauricio the Chief Operating Officer at SandBox Middle East to understand more about the brand’s growth plans and retail strategies for the region.

Let’s begin from the start, tell us a little about your inception journey. Your inspiration and what kept on you the growth path?

Lito German: When I first moved to the Middle East in 2015 (I moved to Saudi Arabia in 2015 and then eventually moved to the UAE in 2019), I was surprised at how difficult it was to find high-quality Filipino food products. Sure, Philippine-made products were available in selected mini-marts and Asian food stores, but the brands on offer were often at the lowest price bracket of the category. In other words, Philippine-made products being offered in the Middle East before were mostly cheap and inferior in terms of taste and quality. But still, we bought these products only to have a taste of home occasionally.

When I chose to pivot from my decades-long career in the automotive industry, I decided to focus on importing and distributing brands and products that Filipino expats in the Middle East know and appreciate. Now, my team and I are dedicated to spreading the joy of Filipino cuisine, and the appreciation for Philippine-made products – not only to serve the Filipino communities here in the Middle East but also for all other nationalities in the region to discover as the products we bring are all world-class.

Mark Mauricio:  Jumping on the success of our distributorship business, we opted strategically to open a chain of specialty retail outlets called Sari Sari Store (a generic term in the Philippines equivalent to a ‘Baqala’) – to ensure that our Filipino products are presented and sold in a premium manner.  

What were the initial challenges that you had to overcome to establish your retail presence and create a strong customer base?

Lito German: We were never greatly concerned with attracting a customer base, considering that Filipinos comprise one of the largest expat populations in the entire Middle East. That said, our focus is on generating Loyalty by offering a wide range of high-quality Filipino goods and delivering a positive retail experience. We are also intently focused on our Conquest strategy of attracting and keeping customers from other backgrounds and nationalities. 

Mark Mauricio: One of our main challenges is identifying retail spaces in all the right places. We plan to establish a total of 15 stores in the UAE alone, as we also expand to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Given this, we’ll be looking for ideal spots and building stores continually for the next few years. After all, retail is all about Location, Location, Location.

What was the strategy you adopted to diversify your products to attract the right customer base?

Lito German: Product Curation has been a strategic plan of ours from Day One. We aim to offer a refreshing array of products that differentiate us from all other groceries and mini-marts scattered in the region. While we present top Philippine-made products that Filipinos look for such as Delimondo, Plantation Prime, GreenFood, and Frabelle Snacks, we likewise offer exciting products from independent, artisan sellers such as Adobo Flakez, Papolicious, and EnsayNation. We’re always on the lookout for a discovery that we can share with the region.  This way, even hard-core Filipino food enthusiasts will always find something new and thrilling in our Sari Sari Store.

Customer is a big factor in retail, what is the strategy that you are planning to follow to stay closer to customers across touchpoints?

Lito German: We’re dialed into the majority of the Filipino groups and communities in the UAE – brought together by various interests from sports to socials, from lifestyle pursuits to business. We constantly ask for feedback and suggestions, and the insights we’ve gained from them have simply been invaluable. We’re always seeking to communicate with our customers, formally through focused group discussions and sampling activities, and informally through social media and WhatsApp groups.

Mark Mauricio: We’ve also designed our store and trained our staff to deliver a unique and satisfying shopping experience. Our customers come looking for a taste of home, or to discover something new – and in either case, they won’t be disappointed. 

On the marketing front, what is the whole scope that you observe and the method or tactics you plan to follow, that you believe gives your brand the right push?

Lito German: We cater firstly to the wide Filipino community in the UAE. Given this specific audience, we’ve had great success with influencer marketing, as well as triggering word-of-mouth and earned media. We’ve been blessed to have the Filipino community embrace our store as their own and really help promote it to others. We even have Filipinos commuting to our store from hours away – if only to enjoy the authentic and premium Sari Sari Store experience. 

Are you planning to venture into online retail anytime soon?

Mark Mauricio: Yes, we’ll soon open an online store to extend our reach, as well as expand our capability to offer many more products – both food and non-food. Besides, being online will support those who are currently traveling a long way just to visit our store.

What is the USP that makes you a trendsetter in your category?

Lito German: Quite simply, we know who we are. We are not trying to be a store with everything for everyone. We curate our offerings with a specific market in mind, and we’ve designed our store to achieve a specific experience: that is, for our customers to experience the best that the Philippines has to offer. 

What about the category and the trends that you saw, which pushed you to venture into retail?

Lito German: Importation and distribution is an extremely capital-intensive, energy-consuming business. And in this value chain, it’s often the distributor that’s squeezed in the middle. Manufacturers will control export pricing and require MOQs (minimum order quantities) while large retail chains determine a ceiling price and impose punishing registration and listing fees at the same time. The costs related to exports also prevent most smaller manufacturers from competing on the world stage. Establishing our foothold in retail gives us control over our own destiny in the value chain, by allowing us to curate our product range and bring in a wider variety of world-class products under our own terms.

Lastly, eyeing the future, what are your plans and how do you plan to execute them?

Lito German: We are pursuing a very aggressive growth strategy, with a minimum of 14 more stores to go in the UAE alone. We also plan to expand our store chain into multiple categories – from stores to supermarkets and eventually, to hypermarkets. This expansion will not just be in terms of size, but more so in terms of product range, as our non-food category will soon extend to cosmetics, small appliances, and electronics. Our wholesale reach across the region will be enabled by the appointment of sub-distributors in key markets such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, while our retail reach will be extended through franchising agreements.

Key Highlights

  • February 2021 – SandBox Marketing FZ LLC pivots from offering marketing services and establishes a wholesale import and distribution division.
  • March 2021 – Lito German joins the company as Chief Executive Officer
  • December 2022 – SandBox Marketing establishes its retail division, SandBox General Trading
  • August 2023 – SandBox General Trading opens its first Sari Sari Store in Karama, Dubai.

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