Dubai: Residents of Dubai want their fish as fresh as is possible – and they were not going to let even COVID-19 interfere with that. Much the same can be said about their fruit and veggie purchases as well, going by the way The Waterfront Market in Deira took on the worst of the pandemic phase last year.
For the heart and soul of Dubai’s trade – wholesale and retail – in fresh produce, it was a challenge that the Market eventually overcame. The numbers suggest as much.
"Our performance in 2020 ended up being more successful than 2019’s numbers,” said Lachlan Gyde, Executive Director for Asset Management, Ithra Dubai, the builder and owner of The Waterfront Market. “In the middle of the peak Covid months, when people had to register to go out to shop and you could go out only once every three days, we were getting new customers.
“People who were never here before were taking the chance to come down – that more than anything was an amazing endorsement. We could do that because we could convince them that this was one safe place to shop.
“And yes, we saw the business at the fish market increase substantially. There was more fish and more ice being sold – and those are as good an indicator as any.”
Touch and go
But in the first weeks after COVID-19 protocols were rolled out and social and commercial activities ground to a halt, it was a bit of touch and go for The Waterfront Market and its tenants. There is this one big tenant that the Market hosts – LuLu with its hypermarket – but all of the others are small enterprises heavily reliant on their daily sales of fresh stock. If shoppers failed to turn up, there was not much use for what these stores were carrying.
It wasn’t just about what COVID-19’s impact would be on the shopping hours. The Waterfront Market was built as a 24-hour operation, with a frenetic wholesale trade going on from 8pm-4am, which is when the catch from the seas that day are brought in and traders pick them up. As can be expected, it is all about constant negotiations on the pricing, with a lot of give and take. And a way of doing business built over centuries.
All that could have evaporated instantly when the pandemic struck. But this is where Gyde and his team worked out ways where the Market and its businesses – a good part of it, at least – could operate.
Overcoming that ‘fear’
“Sure, there was the fear of the unknown - who knew what was in store tomorrow because of the outbreak,” said Gyde. “But there are thousands making a living out at the Waterfront – that’s from the retail operations alone.
“Then there was the wholesale trade conducted just outside. We are not out here to make super-profits. Most of the tenants barely breakeven. The way we see The Waterfront Market, it is a community service. We know that fishing and coming to a marketplace is an Emirati tradition dating back to 100 years and more.
“We sent out a strong message that the Market remains a good place to come to, a safe place. We brought down the number of seating available, but there was still enough for regulars to come, have a chat and catch up - like they did over past decades.”
Numbers are back
The message sure did get through; the Market recorded 20,000-25,000 visitors on average during weekdays and on weekends that swelled to 40,000 plus on average.
“During the early Covid weeks, families had stopped coming,” said Gyde. “But we saw people coming by themselves and people weren’t scared to go into the fish stores. That’s because they were comfortable with the systems we had on. We increased our security and worked closely with Dubai Municipality and individual hygiene companies. There was constant checking of the quality of fish - not just for the freshness but whether it was stored and packed right.
“The vast majority of our tenants are sole traders with one-off shops. That’s what our customers expect from us – the interactions with small traders and where they get to negotiate the price. Everybody has their favourite fish store or restaurant on The Waterfront.”
But some of the tenants took a more direct hit from the disruptions. Retail stores were shut down for a while, while the Waterfront’s F&B “struggled the most”. “They went from lockdown to limited seating and it’s been a slow return for them,” said Gyde. “But we have helped the F&B tenants with promotions and made sure we did not leave them struggling on their own.”
A bit of clicks?
Bow that Dubai and the UAE have gotten a firm grip on the pandemic, what next for The Waterfront Market? One legacy from the COVID-19 days would be to get into some form of online presence for the Market and the businesses that it hosts. Again, it would come directly from the Market’s operator given the limited size of the many businesses represented there.
“Companies have tried to bring bricks and clicks together, some have done it quite well,” said Gyde. “They have blended those aspects well and it would be a natural progression for The Waterfront to explore. There are several different business models to pick and choose from.”
And when would that be? “Sooner than you think…,” is all that Gyde would let on. For now.