Shop talk: shopping and spending habits in the UAE

With Dubai Summer Surprises kicking off this week, we deconstruct the mall habits and luxury spending patterns of the UAE's residents

Emaar Malls - owner of Dubai Malls - posted better than expected profits for the second quarter. Tom Dulat / Getty Images
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It is no secret that the UAE is a mall-centric society. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that today’s uber malls offer much more than an opportunity to buy stuff – they are self-proclaimed “lifestyle destinations”, filled to the hilt with restaurants, supermarkets, banks, multiplex cinemas, play areas, edutainment centres and the suchlike.

Nonetheless, a recent study of the shopping habits of UAE residents threw up a few surprises, while cementing the idea that malls are an intrinsic part of the UAE’s social fabric. Researcher and consultant Nadine Touma Gammage presented the results of a year-long Mall Mapping study at the Arab Luxury World conference in Dubai, which tracked the habits of 4,800 people living in the UAE. It found that more than half visit a mall at least once a week. No big surprises there. What was interesting, given that both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are chock-full of malls, was that 38 per cent of respondents from Abu Dhabi, and 21 per cent from Dubai, commute between the two emirates at least once every three months – the former to visit either The Dubai Mall, Mall of the Emirates or Ibn Battuta, and the latter attracted by the charms of Yas Mall or Marina Mall.

“To understand this, we need to come back to the role of the mall in Gulf countries. In a society historically bound by restrictions and constraints, particularly when it comes to gender-mixing, the mall brought a space where all could interact relatively freely, and express themselves among the community and outside the confines of their homes. The mall took the place of the village square,” explains Gammage.

“All this is obviously emphasised by the fact that the weather is quite hot a great deal of the year. When we restrict the role of malls to shopping, it makes it difficult to understand why people would shop in Dubai when they live in Abu Dhabi, and vice versa. However, when we understand that malls have a bigger role in the community, we can understand why this is the case,” she adds.

When it came to the most frequented malls in the two emirates, the team was surprised to see a few smaller, older and more localised names, some of which took precedence over newer, swankier options. For instance, while The Dubai Mall is most popular in Dubai, it is followed by Deira City Centre and City Centre Mirdif. In Abu Dhabi, in spite of the recent opening of Yas Mall, World Trade Center Mall and The Galleria, it was Marina Mall and Khalidiyah Mall that earned the top two positions, with Madinat Zayed and Dalma Mall also making the list. "These choices definitely reflect a sense of comfort and familiarity: ‘I know it, I know how to shop there and I know where to shop there,’” says Gammage.

A second talk at the Arab Luxury World conference shed further light on the spending patterns of affluent shoppers in the Middle East. The discussion was hosted by Graziela Martins, vice president of merchant business for American Express, Middle East, and was based on research conducted earlier this year. The AMEX research department surveyed 125 people in the UAE, and 754 people in total from five other countries in the Middle East. “Citizens and expats living in the UAE say that they will spend an average of Dh7,000 per month on luxury products and services in 2017,” Martins says. Even though all of the respondents earned at least Dh23,000 per month, this still means that they intend to spend a whopping 30 per cent of their income on luxury items this year.

There were also a few contradictions. For instance, while every person interviewed said that saving money is their number-one priority this year, 46 per cent also said that they are planning to spend the same amount this year as they did last year. And a quarter reported that they would, in fact, spend more than they did in 2016. “The three reasons people gave for wanting to spend the same or more were: greater confidence in their jobs; changes in personal circumstances, such as getting married or having children; and hope for an upswing in the global economy,” says Martins.

About one-third of the sample group said they would spend most of their money on luxury travel this year. Of the six countries surveyed, only those from Oman said that they expect to travel only once this year, while UAE residents said that they are likely to travel between two and four times in 2017.

"While travel takes the lead in the top three luxury categories that people are looking to spend on, this is followed by fashion and, surprisingly, home furnishings, which has overtaken fine dining from last year," says Martins.
As for luxury shopping destinations in the region, Martins says that because the UAE has been coming up as the top choice for several years now, this year, the team wanted to see how the country compared to some of the key global hubs for luxury spending. "While Paris, London, Milan, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore are all countries that people from the Middle East say they shop in, the UAE still ranks as the most popular, with 21 per cent saying they are most likely to do their luxury shopping at a mall in Dubai," she reveals.