How female-led businesses have helped spur a retail revival at a mall in Dubai

Some of the entrepreneurs have used their personal savings to move from community markets to become successful businesses at Times Square Centre

Lina Sadek, owner of Studiyo lab with her team members at the Times Square Centre in Dubai on May 25,2021. Pawan Singh / The National. Story by David
Powered by automated translation

The UAE is far from short of places to shop – but encouraging people to part with their cash isn’t always straightforward.

Being located between massive retail destinations, Mall of the Emirates and The Dubai Mall, compounded that conundrum for Times Square Centre, a mid-sized mall beside Sheikh Zayed Road.

Regulars recall a time of vacant units and quiet weekdays when only cash registers at Caribou Coffee and anchor tenants Sharaf DG, the electrical retailer, and outdoor superstore Adventure HQ seemed busy.

The story is significantly different in 2021 as TSC demonstrates how homegrown concepts fuelled by personal savings can power a physical retail revival.

Dubai-born Palestinian Lina Sadek is among innovative tenants driving footfall in a refreshed TSC community with female entrepreneurialism at its heart.

She applied experiences from her family's construction company and her exhibition stand production facility to an idea conceived 12 years ago as a new mum: a design technology centre for children.

Ms Sadek, 51, raided her savings to fund Studiyo Lab and its eventual TSC location.

“I loved that the mall was family-oriented with tenants that were obviously uniquely chosen,” she says.

Fascinated with toys and the connection of play to language learning, toy fairs led Ms Sadek to the child-friendly woodworking machines she used as an after-school activities provider and then at Studiyo Lab.

“Having witnessed overwhelming interest in our woodworking activities, I wanted a fixed location where children from any school could come and engage in design technology activities,” Ms Sadek says.

I loved that the mall was family-oriented with tenants that were obviously uniquely chosen

The business opened in October 2019 and paused from March to July 2020 due to the pandemic. However, she has continued to provide working capital, with the support of her husband.

“We reopened, despite advice from many in my circle to just close down the business, but my strong belief in what we offer kids in terms of hands-on skills is unshakeable,” Ms Sadek says.

“Activities we were giving the children the opportunity to engage in taught them important skills that unlock creative thinking, self-confidence, sense of achievement, fine motor skills – all skills they will carry into their adult lives.”

In an era of online gaming and pandemic-intensified internet shopping, that in-person interaction is arguably key.

It’s certainly part of TSC general manager Nancy Ozbek’s strategy to make a once less-fancied mall somewhere people want to come to spend money – not by competing with famous retail addresses, but through re-configuring what a shopping centre needs to be to draw customers.

Herself a parent, she has steadily added experiential elements under the “retailtainment” model, to use recent retail terminology.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES. 10 DECEMBER 2019. 
Nancy Ozbek, GM of Times Square Mall.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter:
Section:
Nancy Ozbek, general manager of Times Square Centre, says her team focused on improving the footfall using the right tenant mix and zoning the retail space . Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National

“With retailtainment, to be successful, retailers must offer consumers a desirable retail experience that in return converts to sales,” Ms Ozbek says.

“Our retailers have evolved their offerings to provide customers with a fun, unique and in-person customer experience.”

On joining three years ago, Ms Ozbek found strong anchor tenants Sharaf DG, Adventure HQ and Toys R Us, the first two brands belonging to TSC parent company Sharaf Group.

“Our strategy focused on identifying our ‘ideal visitor’ by listening to the existing and prospective retailers and our community, to understand them.

Our strategy focused on identifying our 'ideal visitor' by listening to the existing and prospective retailers and our community

“We focused on improving the footfall using the right tenant mix and zoning the retail space … this strategy resonated well, with the introduction of 26 new brands since 2019.”

Among them is a proliferation of female-led businesses, many offering shoppers something their wallets wouldn’t find in other malls.

Adventure HQ already drew families with a climbing tower and aerial walkway.

That active mindset resonated with several incoming businesses, such as Orange Theory Fitness, Naya yoga and pilates, Stretch Studio’s assisted static stretching, even Malaak’s pre- and post-natal workshops.

And the enduring presence of an ice cafe hinted that other irregular mall offerings could prosper, such as board games seller Back To Games, Tutoring Club’s educational enterprise and instrument retailer and music lessons brand Melodica, where a furniture store previously operated.

“The face of retail is constantly evolving both regionally and globally,” Ms Ozbek, an iron man competitor in her downtime, says.

“We were at 60 per cent occupancy in 2019 and today we are at 95 per cent.

“Many high street shops are losing their customers to the convenience of online retail … TSC visitors are often looking for something specific in their shopping experiences to keep them coming back.”

Lama Shamseddine, owner of Baby Eats at the Times Square Centre in Dubai on May 25,2021. Pawan Singh / The National. Story by David
Lama Shamseddine, owner of Baby Eats at Times Square Centre, says it made perfect sense to be part of the tenant mix because the venue is themed around family, mothers, babies and kids. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National

Even the refreshed Picnic Square food court is a crucible for entrepreneurial endeavour, BabyEats owner Lama Shamseddine says.

The former landscape architect launched her healthy meals for babies concept in the UAE after the birth of her son amid concerns about his nutrition when she returned to work.

“I went into deep research about the topic, educated myself more and consulted with nutritionists and paediatricians, studied the market landscape and, after more than a year of thorough planning, decided I would not go back to my corporate life,” she recalls.

Initially started as a subscription-based service for babies, BabyEats now covers children aged up to three years.

[Times Square Centre is] not your typical commercial mall where tenants just line up for empty units regardless of concept

“I thought having a physical space would bring me closer to my clients and give the option to visit and try our service before committing to a subscription,” Ms Shamseddine, 31, says.

“Today, actually knowing where their baby’s food is being prepared gives a sort of comfort to parents, versus if we were operating through dark kitchens or shared spaces/catering services.”

So far, BabyEats has been solely financed by Ms Shamseddine and her husband’s savings and family contributions, including their unit in what she describes as “not your typical commercial mall where tenants just line up for empty units regardless of concept”.

With TSC also host to regular Baby Bazaar markets for pre-loved children’s items, the Belgian-Lebanese sees the venue as themed around family, mothers, babies, kids, so “being part of the portfolio just made perfect sense”, especially after a chance meeting with Ms Ozbek while BabyEats was developing.

“The team is extremely collaborative and supportive … an environment every start-up looks to be part of, especially during the first few months of operation,” Ms Shamseddine adds.

Arte – a regular pop-up market for locally handmade products – has called TSC home since 2007.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - December 1st, 2017: Miriam Walsh, founder and organiser of ArtEartisans markets. Friday, December 1st, 2017 at WAFI Mall, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Miriam Walsh is the founder of Arte – a regular pop-up market for locally handmade products – which has called Times Square Centre home since 2007. Photo: Chris Whiteoak / The National

Its founder, Miriam Walsh, has witnessed the mall’s varying fortunes, and is happy to see better times return.

Arte artisans now supply some of the new stores, while others have become tenants, including handicraft artist Niisha Sood, managing director of self-funded Divine Flowers Dubai.

“It has been our underlying passion to support local SMEs and it pleases us that so many vendors have progressed beyond their hobby to turn their passion into a business,” Ms Walsh says.

It has been our underlying passion to support local SMEs and it pleases us that so many vendors have progressed beyond their hobby to turn their passion into a business

“We have worked with many different managements over the years who have all done their utmost for the success of the mall, and the present management is really pulling it together and lifting TSC up to a new dimension with the new community concepts.”

Several Arte vendors have products on the shelves of The Makers Guild and Eggs & Soldiers, independent stores delivering passive income for creatives beyond market fixtures.

“Many have seen increased sales from having a full-time outlet that also allows them to sell when away on vacation or if not participating in a market,” says British mother-of-two Kay Robinson, who used her savings to give The Makers Guild a permanent home where a fashion brand once traded.

“The decision to personally fund rather than take outside investment was due to a very strong desire to keep all business operations, current and future decision making, within my control.

“With all the hard work that goes into setting up, establishing and running a small independent business, my wish was for Makers Guild to remain a family asset that my husband and sons are also proud of and assist in the running of.”

Kay Robinson, owner of Makers Guild at the Times Square Centre in Dubai on May 25,2021. Pawan Singh / The National. Story by David
Kay Robinson, owner of Makers Guild at Times Square Centre, says her business is also a passion project where small local entrepreneur businesses gather under one roof, selling on a consignment and sales commission basis. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National

Ms Robinson, who previously worked in finance and accountancy, says her "community business" is also a passion project "where small local entrepreneur businesses gather under one roof", selling on a consignment and sales commission basis.

“I consider a major part of my role to be pulling together the best small local vendors and product selection the UAE has to offer so the store can generate the required interest and necessary revenue,” Ms Robinson says.

"I take the full risk of the business being able to meet all overhead running costs."

I consider a major part of my role to be pulling together the best small local vendors and product selection the UAE has to offer

Ms Robinson, 44, acknowledges opening last December involved lots of risk “at a particularly difficult time for retail as a whole” and as more retail was moving online.

“However, coming from a finance background, all return on investment and payback periods were estimated and calculations performed and I had realistic expectations to work towards to provide reassurance,” she adds.

“I had great belief in the concept, the products, the location and unit, and without any risk-taking, there can be no growth.”

Ms Ozbek, meanwhile, confirms her mission to encourage people to spend money differently, while supporting innovative new businesses not usually found in malls but looking to make the leap into physical retail space.

“Our perspectives are different from regular malls,” Ms Ozbek adds.

“Each of our brands has a story and purpose behind it and we continuously look to promote this.

“Many of our tenants started with just a small table at our community markets – now they are successful retailers and mini anchor stores within Times Square Centre.”