Mega makeover in store for Virgin

Nisreen Shocair maps out the future of retail entertainment. (DENNIS B MALLARI)

Corporate marketing plans have seen a makeover in recent years. Gone are the days when business houses confined themselves to selling products that fit their stringent promotional profile. Today, these very companies are humming away to the tune of lifestyle branding, with Virgin Megastores being the latest example.

After blending the right formula to lead their international stores to retail nirvana, the Virgin Megastores brand in the UAE has expanded from being a pure retailer to an entertainment venue, with artist sign-ins, quiz nights and a newly launched boutique section offering everything from movie memorabilia to jewellery.

Emirates Business caught up with Nisreen Shocair, President of Virgin Megastores Middle East, to learn more about the company's big plans for the region's entertainment junkies.

In the two years since you took over your current position, you have transformed the company's image. How vital was it for Megastores to undergo this makeover?

Today's markets are all about lifestyle branding. Rather than concentrating on a niche segment that appeals to the male demographic, as we once did, today's Virgin appeals to males, females and kids, giving an equal opportunity to consumers of all ages.

Women, especially mothers, were once a neglected target market, alienated by the angular and dark colours of the store. But they are now taking advantage of the books and the new boutique section and dragging their children in with them.

In demographic terms, who are the biggest buyers?

Trendsetters are our biggest buyers. I can't pick on a certain age group because I see trendsetters as younger and older people who are very image-conscious. The hardest part of our job is to make the rest of the people aware of the latest trends. We have to go to all exhibitions and shows, Hong Kong, New York to see what's coming two years from now.

How important a role does Virgin Megastores play in creating its own trend?

Nearly 80 per cent of our shoppers are browsers. They are in the store to see what's happening in the entertainment world, and as a company, the onus is on us to provide them with an edgy choice. However, we also take a huge risk in stocking titles that we believe in. For example, we heard this Lebanese band Lumi and found their music edgy. And to take them on, we need to invest in them through marketing and provide them with shelf space and ways to make them successful.

Who decides which product or brand will occupy shelf space in the store?

We are very granular in our approach to such decisions. We divide up the teams at Virgin in a specific way. The person who is in charge of the stationary buying has to be obsessed with it. S/he was the kid who was a sticker collector as a child and had 16 staplers, even if they were never used. That person is so passionate about work, they will research trends, go to shows, collect things and hunt for the most unique items for the store.

What big trends can we anticipate this summer?

Music will be very big this summer, with emphasis on new artists who are younger and female. From the established names, the new Coldplay album will be huge.

In terms of events, this has been a hot summer with Bon Jovi and Scorpions performing, along with news of Madonna coming. We can anticipate many more big names, hopefully Coldplay and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Established titles like High School Musical and Hannah Montana are still going strong, including the music, the video, gift items and book products.

Are buying patterns in this region any different from international ones?

Every year, trends in the GCC follow their own pattern when compared to international markets. Three years ago, when I would compare the bestseller lists from The New York Times and The Guardian to our top 10 here, I would find an 80 per cent overlap in sales.

Now, the overlap is no more than 30 to 40 per cent because a lot of local content is replacing international titles; although, in terms of music the big ones like Madonna always do well. But they will do just as good as Mohammed Abdo or anyone who is on the Rotana roster like Amr Diab. Ragheb Alama's album may even outsell Mariah Carey.

Are in-store signings and celebrity photo-ops a vital part of the marketing plan?

Of course, it is. But many international artists still have reservations about flying to other Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait or Lebanon, due to the political unrest.

In the UAE, however, it has become a big marketing exercise. Like recently we had Karl Wolf launch his new CD at our store and it turned into a big hit with the under 18s who were unable to attend his concert.

Do retail stores play a big role in making or breaking an artist's career?

Retail plays a very important role, especially when its locals and those who are not in the top 10 list. We play a huge driving force through marketing, PR, on-the-floor selling and up-selling.

Let's say we believe in Lumi. Probably 99 per cent of our customers have never even heard of them. We make an effort by playing their music and video and tell our customers how cool they are. More than likely, you will sell between 700 and 800 units, which is big.

However, the shelf life is fast shrinking, and no product lasts longer than eight weeks; 10 weeks if you happen to be Justin or Madonna.

What is Virgin Megastores' biggest competition?

Anyone who goes into another store to buy a product we retail is competition.

What does the future hold for Virgin Megastores in the region?

We'll offer digital downloads to customers, with emphasis on local artists. Rotana is big on the concept.

We want to include more Persian and Indian content, as both are markets that haven't been tapped into.

Regionally, we are opening our first Virgin Megastores in Bahrain in September and our second in Qatar very soon. There's a lot more surprises that we will reveal over the upcoming months.


Music pirates

As piracy continues to be a growing problem in the region, Nisreen Shocair, President of Virgin Megastores Middle East, says the industry here loses $250m annually to bootleg DVDs and illegal downloading over the internet.

"You can clearly see the major shrinkage in revenue figures for music CDs and DVDs," she says. "The anti piracy laws in the region haven't really helped much. Ultimately, no matter how many raids they make, if the consumer does not feel they are doing something wrong, no one will be able to curb piracy."

Pricing and availability also continue to major factors, she admits, saying: "A lot of times, the big sellers in the world of piracy are those films or music CDs that are banned here, so people resort to purchasing pirated copies.

"And when the mass community at large, like that in Egypt, is very price sensitive, selling a CD for Dh50 to Dh90 for four good tracks is just not justifiable anymore to our consumers."