Lulu blazes a retail trail in Kerala

Lulu, the UAE supermarket chain has opened its first outlet in India and is eyeing further expansion across the country.

Yusuff Ali, the managing director of Emke Group, opens Lulu's first mall in India, yesterday, in Kochin, Kerala state. Ravindranath K / The National
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KOCHI // The Abu Dhabi-based retail group Lulu is aiming to expand across India, after opening its first mall in the subcontinent.

The group yesterday launched its 16 billion rupee (Dh1.08bn) shopping centre in Kochi, a port city on the Arabian Sea in the state of Kerala.

"The chief minister [of Kerala] has requested me to make more malls," said Yusuff Ali, the managing director of Emke Group, which owns the Lulu brand. The group is targeting projects "first in Kerala, then I will expand to other states", Mr Ali added, without providing further details.

The shopping centre has attracted a host of global brands, including Nike, Levi's and McDonald's, which all have stores in the development.

The mall, which is one of India's largest, covers 7 hectares and includes an ice rink, a multiplex cinema, food court, a Lulu hypermarket and a bowling alley.

Emke is also building a Marriott hotel, which is expected to open later this year, as part of the complex.

Mr Ali, a native of Kerala, said he was "really happy" to be opening the project there, revelling in the attention as he drove local dignitaries on a tour of the mall in a golf buggy. The launch was a highly awaited event following delays to the project.

Mr Ali launched the Lulu Hypermarket chain in the UAE after joining Emke Group, which was founded by his uncle, MK Abdulla, in Abu Dhabi more than four decades ago. The chain has expanded across the Arabian Gulf region and to Egypt. Just this month Mr Ali was added to Forbesmagazine's list of billionaires, with an estimated net worth of US$1.5 billion (Dh5.51bn).

The opening comes at a time of slowing economic growth and weaker consumer spending in India, but retailers remain confident.

Shamlal Ahamed, the managing director of international operations at the Indian jeweller Malabar Gold & Diamonds, which has a large store in the mall, explained that rents were higher than it paid elsewhere in Kerala, but added that the group was confident of a return on its investment.

"We're expecting a lot of customers from all over Kerala, not just Kochi," said Mr Ahamed. "We're expecting a lot of new customers."

The mall is expected to directly create about 8,000 jobs.

"This project is good and healthy for the economy of Kerala and India," said Abdullah Ahmed Al Saleh, the undersecretary at the UAE's Ministry of Foreign Trade. "Any growth, any development in India, we will be benefiting from this [in the UAE].

"The businessmen and the investors are connected. We have investors in this market. At the same time, also, any growth in the UAE, India will benefit because we have a lot of investors from India in the UAE."

The links between the UAE and Kerala are particularly strong, with Keralites estimated to account for about half of all Indians in the Emirates. Dubai's Tecom Investments is developing a vast business park in Kochi, while DP World has invested substantially and operates a major container terminal in the city. Emke is also developing a Grand Hyatt hotel and convention centre in Kochi, with work on the project expected to start soon.

Non-oil trade between the two countries reached a record $70bn last year, Mr Al Saleh said. "That puts India as the first trade partner for the UAE … and there is a big gap between the first trade partner, which is India, and the second, which is China. Most of the trade is in gold, diamonds, food, meat, other kinds of products, petrochemicals."

A joint government committee for investment between the UAE and India last month discussed opportunities for investment into the subcontinent in different sectors including infrastructure and oil and gas.

"The committee will meet twice a year to follow up the projects and facilitate the business," Mr Al Saleh said. "Government to government, it's good to meet with each other. Our role is to communicate with the private sector if they have any challenges, any obstacles."