Al Hokair makes first big push outside Saudi

Fawaz Abdulaziz Al Hokair Fashion Retail, one of the biggest retail groups in the Middle East, is making its first big push outside its home market of Saudi Arabia. The group, which operates more than 900 stores, will open 112 new stores this year, about half of which will be in other countries in the MENA region and emerging markets such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, said Simon Marshall, the company's chief executive.

"We want to continue our expansion, and we now need to look to the international arena," Mr Marshall said during a visit to Dubai to open one of the group's New Yorker brand stores. "So we're opening in Dubai and we've got two [retail] companies we're looking to purchase in Jordan and Egypt." The group's expansion comes after a difficult year for retailers around the world because of the economic downturn.

Mr Marshall said last year's sales were down in the UAE, but would not specify by how much. He added, however, that the UAE was the hardest-hit market in his portfolio, with sales in Dubai suffering and Abu Dhabi revenues flat. Sales in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, grew by 5 per cent compared with the year before, and sales in Egypt were up between 1.6 and 1.8 per cent, Mr Marshall said. Last year, the group scaled back store openings globally to 72, down from the 174 new outlets in 2008. But now, Mr Marshall said, things were starting to pick up.

"We can see the consumer confidence coming back," he said. "People are starting to spend money again and people are starting to buy products." The group has acquired eight new brands, mainly from North America, Mr Marshall said. As part of its five-year plan to expand from 900 stores to 1,700 stores, the group would focus its expansion across MENA and emerging markets such as Kazakhstan, which are developing and stable, he said.

Mr Marshall said the group was aiming to open 20 new stores in Kazakhstan this year. "Kazakhstan is a market that is very underdeveloped. We refer to it as a 'virgin territory for retail'."

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