Dubai: To say the opening of a Bloomingdale's store in Dubai is an unusual step for the company is a bit of an understatement.
For 138 years the New York-based luxury department store took expansion very slowly. It wasn't until the late 1970s that the company began opening stores outside New York.
An international store wasn't even on the cards, says Michael Gould, the store's chief executive and chairman.
"I was very leery of doing anything outside the United States, because I feel there must be a good reason why there are no international department stores in the United States that have been successful, and there must be a reason why there are no American department stores that have gone to Europe or Asia or the Middle East and have been wildly successful."
The reason, according to Gould, who sat down with Gulf News for a one-on-one interview yesterday at the new store at Dubai Mall, has to do with its "DNA", or whatever it is that makes one store different from another.
"I think what makes a department store or a large speciality department store popular in its own locale is it has its own DNA," he said. "Like it or not, Bloomingdale's, Saks [Fifth Avenue], Neimen [Marcus], Nordstrom… everyone has a DNA."
But DNA often ties into the culture, he said, adding that he had never come across a company that he thought was capable of making the DNA of Bloomingdale's work in a foreign market.
"To translate a DNA to another culture is very, very difficult," he said. "And I think what was unique about Dubai was that there were a bunch of people… who understood what we were talking about. They understood the brand. They understood what were the core elements about Bloomingdale's."
The group that got Bloomie's, as it is often called, out of the US was Al Tayer Insignia, which has successfully brought other luxury retail brands to the UAE.
Shireen Al Khateeb, the company's chief executive, said that from the early talks, which began in 2007, the two companies have been working on how to make Bloomingdale's work in the UAE.
"It's been immensely joyful working on this project, despite the time and energy it has taken, and the very long flights and the sleepless nights," she said. "Everyone has been feeling proud, excited and waiting to see the store opening and up and running."
Gould said he doesn't see the arrangement with Al Tayer Insignia as a licensing agreement even though it is one but instead sees Shireen as a partner.
"It's not like, ‘you run the store and send me a cheque every quarter,'" he said. "There are three areas where we will have constant communication: merchandising, marketing, public relations."
Shireen toured several Bloomingdale's stores in the US, including the flagship on 59th Street and Lexington in Manhattan, as well as stores in Boston, Washington, DC, and in Orange County and San Francisco in California. She estimated that she made about 12 to 13 trips to the US just in the past two years.
"At one point in time, about two years ago, we were in the US almost every 10 days," she said. "We visited them enough to understand what is Bloomingdale's, what is the spirit we need to take to Dubai."
Gould didn't just want to recreate a Bloomingdale's in the UAE, if for no other reason that what works at one store often won't work at another. Instead, he said the company's goal was to bring to Dubai what the 59th Street store in New York represented.
"This is a store that has to create theatre and excitement, he said. "That is what has to make us different. It's not going to be the store that has the most merchandise in the mall, it's not going to be the store that has the highest price in the mall. But it's the store that has to create the excitement, the energy, in a mall that is truly remarkable."
But Gould is also careful to bring in those things that make Bloomingdale's what it is.
"One of thing we have been less than successful with in the US is finding some iconic New York things and bringing them to other stores," he said. To that end, the store will have a Magnolia Bakery, which was popularised by the Sex and the City TV series, and a 40 Carrots café.
But opening a Bloomingdale's in the UAE wasn't a simple matter of just opening New York-style cafés or stocking the store's iconic Brown Bags. It also meant securing the rights to sell much of the same merchandise as the US stores. However, a number of those brands, such as Ralph Lauren and Burberry were already under exclusive distributorships in the UAE.
"Ralph Lauren is one of our largest resources in the store, but that took some doing because… Ralph Lauren in Dubai is actually distributed here by someone else," Gould said. "And so it took a great deal of effort to get the Ralph Lauren people to work with that [distributor] and say, ‘Let them be in the store.'"
Shireen said the process of getting other distributors to work with Bloomingdale's "took some time, and it was slightly complicated in certain areas", but she said she was able to convince many of the distributors to participate, based on the reputation of both Bloomingdale's and Al Tayer.
Not all the distributors agreed however, she said. Those who declined usually cited an existing store in the mall. However, the Al Tayer Insignia also managed to bring brands into the store, including some that are not even sold in Manhattan.
Just how Bloomingdale's will be received in the UAE won't be known for some time, but Gould said the company's aim is to build customer loyalty.
"It isn't about how much you can do over the first day," he said. "It is what we can sustain over a period of time."
Gould declines to answer questions about financial expectations, but did add the company is confident following strong fourth quarter results from many companies in the West.
"The biggest challenge in my mind is getting enough merchandise in the building as fast as possible," he said. "We may have been a little conservative six or nine months ago [when orders with manufactures were placed], but I think now we may have been too conservative."
Shireen, for her part, said that even though the project has been in the works since when "there was really a true boom in Dubai and everyone was super optimistic" opening Bloomingdale's was an opportunity the company couldn't pass up, despite the global economic slowdown.
"This was the right moment to take Bloomingdale's to the mall," she said, "and because of the integrity of our group, we continued with the project despite all the financial hurdles that the world witnessed over the past two years."