Clarks puts its best foot forward

British shoe brand Clarks plans to expand in the region, setting up an office to support the 15 per cent year on year growth.

Clarks underwent an image makeover to tap growth opportunities outside the UK. Scott Eells / Bloomberg News
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Clarks made a name for itself kitting out generations of children with school shoes but now the company is making a leap to more forcefully challenge its mainstream rivals across the Arabian Gulf.

The British shoe seller's business is split between large markets that do not very grow fast, and small, rapidly expanding markets that are becoming increasingly important.

In the United Kingdom, Clarks has about an 11 per cent share of the total shoe market, and 30 per cent of sales of children's shoes. But growth is slow.

In the Middle East, the company sells around three quarters of a million pairs of shoes annually. This is a small proportion of its 55 million pairs a year worldwide - but sales are growing at about 15 per cent each year.

"In the scale of Clarks, [the Middle East and Africa is] one of our smaller markets but it is growing very fast," said Clarks' global chief executive, Melissa Potter.

Once associated with more mature women and young children, the company underwent an image makeover about three or four years ago to bring it more up to date. "It was really inspired by the fact that we see growth opportunities outside of the UK," said Ms Potter.

"I think Clarks needs to keep up with our consumers, so as we were moving outside of the UK, and we wanted to sell more to consumers in the UK as well, becoming more stylish was very important because most people think about style first and then they think about comfort."

Clarks hopes to open an office this year to support the growth in the Middle East, added Ms Potter, who visited the UAE last month to meet representatives of the brand's long-time partner in the region, the Jashanmal Group.

"We have had a very small team working here for the last couple of years who have done a fantastic job of supporting the growth here but we are just going to put a little more resources behind it and open an office in Dubai to better serve the Middle East and Africa," she said.

Clarks opened three stores in the UAE last year, two in Abu Dhabi, at Mushrif Mall and Al Wahda Mall, and one in Dubai, at Mirdif City Centre, bringing the total number of its stores in the country, which are managed by Jashanmal, to 14.

The company believes there is scope to open a further "five or six" stores in the Emirates over the next five years.

"We're also looking to grow in Saudi Arabia," said Ms Potter. "We have about 11 stores there. We think there's probably opportunity to do about double the number of stores in Saudi over the coming years."

The brand aims to almost double its regional footprint from 58 stores to 100 outlets.

"It's always difficult to make predictions too far into the future, but I think the Middle East is going to continue to be a fast-growing market for us, certainly into the next five years," said Ms Potter. "We would say we have got in our plan that we want to continue to expand in the Middle East in the next five years. I think that will be very possible. This is my first visit to Dubai and it's extraordinary."

The company has been selling shoes in the region through a partnership with Jashanmal for about 40 years. It began about the time a member of the Clark family, Nathan Clark, invented the desert boot after seeing British army officers wearing suede boots with crepe soles that had been made by cobblers in Cairo.