The benefits and pitfalls of pop-markets in the UAE

We spoke to UAE-based designers to find out what goes into preparing for a pop-up event, whether or not they are always profitable, and whether making money is the primary goal.

Outside The Box Market at Burj Park, Downtown Dubai. Anna Nielsen for The National
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Pop-up markets offer a great way for local designers and brands to connect with customers, but with rising costs and more competition, is it really worth it?

Winter in the UAE calls for a break from the malls and shift in focus to outdoor activities – shopping included. With markets popping up all over Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the ­offerings from home-grown brands are endless – from abayas and T-shirts to home decor, stationery and statement jewellery, plus quirky food to keep your energy levels up.

But how beneficial are these pop-up markets to brands? We spoke to UAE-based designers to find out what goes into preparing for a pop-up event, whether or not they are always profitable, and whether making money is the primary goal.

The cost factor

While markets might look like a lot of fun to an outsider, sustaining a brand is hard work. It can be difficult to ­cover the costs at such events, let alone make a profit. Another challenge is the rising participation rates.

Mona Fares, the designer behind Dubai-based urban-glam label Neon Edge, has taken part in more than 150 exhibitions and pop-ups since launching her brand in 2009. In that time, rental costs have dramatically increased.

“When I started, costs were Dh3,000 to Dh5,000 for pop-ups, and bigger exhibitions were about Dh15,000,” she says. “Now, it’s definitely much more expensive.”

The cost for a 4 metre by 2m space at the 10-day DSF Market OTB (Outside the Box) is currently Dh9,000. A 3m by 2m stall at Eventra’s annual five-day Ramadan Fair is about Dh14,000, while the cost to exhibit at the 4-day Abu Dhabi Bride Show is a whopping Dh45,000.

Ripe Market remains the most ­affordable option, with a charge of about Dh500 a day.

Chloe Bosher, who creates ­handmade floral headbands, hats and jewellery for her Dubai label, Dot Your Teas, finds it difficult to keep up with rising rent charges.

“It has become a really frustrating part of being an independent, small, home-grown brand with no financial backing – some markets have tripled in price from when they started,” she says.

Bosher, who also works as a stylist, cannot always attend every market herself, so she has to employ staff to work at the stall for her.

“If you’re paying for staff or people to help you, that’s salaries you have to pay,” says Fares. “Plus ­transportation, decoration – that’s all money. Sometimes even flights. I’ve done exhibitions in Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, where you have to pay for your tickets and hotel stays, too.” For her pop-up stalls, Emirati ­designer Latifa Al Gurg, founder of modest travelwear label Twisted Roots, maintains a consistent decor theme that includes vintage trunks in which to store the clothes, and ­sometimes, ­patterned wallpaper.

This week, she is participating at DSF Market OTB in Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Bride Show. Because the dates overlap, she has to pay for staff but has found a way to make the process more affordable. For the Bride Show, she is splitting the Dh45,000 rent cost of the stall with seven other designers. Some markets, however, do not ­allow designers to team up like this, or require approval well in advance.

Happening now until January 28th. Join us at #DSFMarketOTB for a unique experience filled with good vibes, amazing food, on-trend designers & much more!

Posted by DSF Markets on Sunday, January 22, 2017

Breaking even

With participation costs for some markets so high, breaking even is not always guaranteed. Fares says a designer needs to carefully consider the type of market they are participating in before deciding on stock for it.

For example, she will sell her ­casualwear, including capes and ­kimonos, at Ripe Market, whereas at a Bride Show, she can afford to produce more jazzy, embellished pieces with higher price tags.

Fares says she would not pay to be at a pop-up if she did not see the ­potential to profit from it financially.

“Over seven and a half years I’ve evolved from being just a designer to running my business,” she says. “For small to medium-sized brands in the region, the only way to sustain is with cash flow – otherwise, what’s the point?”

Al Gurg, however, whose label is just under two years old, would consider attending a pop-up even if she did not expect to cover the rental cost. Though she was ultimately profitable at DSF Market OTB in 2016, she did not anticipate breaking even and says she would have been happy to simply gain brand exposure.

Audience expectations

Some designers, particularly those who sell premium or luxury goods, struggle with the assumptions market customers have about prices.

Traditionally, outdoor markets are viewed in a similar way to flea ­markets, garage sales and the like, and visitors are not keen on spending a lot of money at them. Bosher’s floral headbands and pom-pom-studded jewellery is therefore ideal market stock, with her highest price set at Dh200.

Al Gurg’s designs, though, range in price from Dh350 to Dh1,600.

“Price point is a little difficult because we are more of a premium brand,” says Al Gurg. “But it helps that customers can touch the fabrics, and you can show them the finishing and explain things like, ‘This is our finish, and this is what your finish should be, on a silk shirt, it shouldn’t be an over-lock, it should be a French seam’.”

Marketing methods

Another step often required when getting ready to participate at a market is advertising. Some organisers take care of this, and post on behalf of participating designers on the event’s Instagram platform. But when organisers don’t provide this type of service, some brands opt to invest in their own Facebook or Instagram advertisements.

Others try gifting an item from their collection to a prominent blogger or “influencer”, in hopes that they will post about their brand and the pop-up on their social media account.

However, for most home-grown ­labels, there are already high costs for the production and setting up, which makes it difficult to put aside money for a marketing budget. Instead, the common practice is to send out emails and post on personal Facebook and ­Instagram pages.

Al Gurg reveals ­another useful way to spread the word: “It’s nice when you have kids because you have WhatsApp groups for school – those do well.”

Market saturation

While markets were previously rare in the UAE, they have become a growing trend. Designers now have to compete with countless other up-and-coming brands, and because there is so much demand for space, organisers can get away with high charges.

“Between 2009 and 2014 there was a maximum of maybe 100 designers in Dubai, so there was a niche, and also the exhibitions were niche,” says Fares. “I mean now, every Tom, Dick and Harry are throwing exhibitions left right and centre, every week.

“There are so many you don’t even know which to go to. It has become too overwhelming for the [customers], and not all have that certain quality and standard.”

Bosher adds that because there is a constant flood of different markets, fewer people are likely to visit each one, adding: “You also lose the ­uniqueness of each market.”

Making a connection

Some designers find the market vibe addictive, and that is one of the reasons they keep coming back.

Along with the organisers, other brands and visitors, a sort of ­community is created.

“I love the connection to the customers,” says Al Gurg. Even if a visitor does not buy anything, she says, they may become a second-degree customer and buy something at a ­later date.

Another plus is that the designer has complete control of how they display their products, which they do not have at retail boutiques.

“That’s a big strength of markets,” says Al Gurg. “It’s where you say this is my voice, and show everyone who you are, what your identity is and what your story is – and that’s key.”

It’s also helpful for designers to meet clients face-to-face.

“Getting positive feedback from regular supporters of your products is one of the best compliments,” says Bosher.

“They’re always surprised to see that I make everything by hand. Seeing them wear my pieces and share them on social media is a great feeling – it makes it all worthwhile.”

Hafsa Lodi is a writer and stylist for The National. She also has a part-time clothing line, and is taking part in this year's DSF Market OTB.