Lessons Learned Growing The Brands For Less Group On Its 20th Anniversary In The UAE
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
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2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the Brands For Less Group in the UAE- two decades after we took on the challenge to become the biggest off-price retailer in the region. We had big plans for this year- some were achieved, and others were not, because of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
Just like everyone else, we could have never predicted the exceptional events that were about to occur this year, including the coronavirus pandemic and its economic, social, and financial repercussions. It’s been a time of great reflection, and we have taken it as an opportunity to further refine our retail business for the future, as well as to look back on the biggest achievements and lessons over the last 20 years.
Here are our top tips and lessons for navigating and growing your business in the long-term:
1. React and adapt to unprecedented circumstances affecting your market
The COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting measures weakened many markets at a time when business was already fragile. Companies needed to quickly adapt, especially in retail, through bolstering their e-commerce platforms to provide a viable alternative for the in-store experience. We fully embraced this reality and quickly pivoted funds and brains into our e-commerce strategy, and opening up a new state-of-the-art, 30,000 sq. m. e-commerce warehouse in the Jebel Ali Free Zone to futureproof our business. When necessary, quickly assessing and responding to how you can serve your customer in a new way is fundamental to longterm success.
2. Be proactive rather than reactive if you want to succeed and overcome challenges
Building on our first tip, we discovered that whenever we went with our gut feeling at the onset of a challenge and listened to our customers (what they need, and how), we managed to overcome what initially looked like a threat. At Brands For Less (BFL), we have become known for our in-store experience, where we aim to offer value for customers through exciting merchandising displays and an ever-changing selection of designer goods at discounted prices. Therefore, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than panicking when some of our retail locations had to close, or refuse to adapt, we acknowledged the fact that we needed to recreate and enhance the BFL experience online through fun, immersive visuals and promotions, as well as through a new rewards program, dubbed “Smile” to be launched in November. Staying in sync with market demands and future trends, having contingency plans, and being willing to change course at any given moment is integral.
3. Learn by trial and error to perfect your approach
Without risk, there is no reward, and we have learned over the years that it’s ok to get some things wrong. The lessons are always greater than the losses, and you will be better poised for greater success. Being innovative means making mistakes sometimes, so we encourage all businesses and entrepreneurs to experiment by trying things that may not have been done before, as long as they make sense for your business vision.
4/ Customer experience is vital to survival and leadership
When we first started out, there were no other off-price retailers in the Middle East. Throughout our company’s 20-year history, we’ve always had to make sure we keep our customer at the heart of everything we do. How can we excite them and make them want to return to our stores, or go online? We’ve done this mainly through integrating rapid-fire merchandise purchasing and inventory turnover into our retail model creating a treasure-hunt experience, so customers are always excited to explore our new assortment in-store and online. Find out which customer insights your business can tap into, and create a positive benefit or experience around them.
5. Look into the diverse expectations of customers from different cultures
Brands For Less has grown to have 54 stores in 135 cities from the Middle East to Europe. We’ve also acquired businesses with different origins like Tchibo (German), Mumuso (Korean) and Muy Mucho (Spanish), in addition to introducing new in-house concepts such as Homes For Less and Toys For Less. With so many different cultural backgrounds from a partner and customer perspective, we have to make sure that we take our research seriously to determine what products are best for each market, as well as the best way to position Brands For Less and the other affiliated concepts there. We’re still true to our brand essence, but mindful and respectful of these different needs. Use data mainly through customer feedback to address and excel your business approach in existing and new regions.
6. Value is not just about low price- it’s about quality, price, and experience
We believe that being an off-price retailer offering items at low prices has not been the only factor to our success. Customers still want quality and the feeling of getting a bargain being associated with a unique experience, which is why we’re excited to offer well-known designer brands to them at a more accessible price, as well as to introduce new exciting brands that fit their expectations. For example, when we introduced Tchibo (the German premium coffee, home items, and apparel lines) into some of our stores in 2004, it made a significant impact, as our customers loved the new selections, which were sold out very quickly. We have also rolled out a cafe in some of our bigger stores to elevate the shopping experience for customers, enabling them to relax and further enjoy their in-store experience.
7. Keep your brand identity intact across different markets
When you’re scaling your business and opening new stores in different areas and markets, you need to ensure your brand image and identity stays intact. We want our customers, whether visiting a Brands For Less store in Dubai or Oman (where we will be opening a new store in towards the end of 2020), to have that same experience of discovery and enjoyment in shopping for high quality goods at discounted prices. It also comes down to training your staff to uphold your brand’s vision in a relevant way and ensure the customer’s experience is the same in all our stores around the world.
8. Build a strong business foundation before expanding
Every business owner needs to create a “skeleton” for their company- that is your key offering and a business model that makes you unique. Once you’ve grown and established a loyal customer base, then you can expand- as long as its relevant and ties in together. We grew Brands for Less steadily from 2000 to 2004 before we made our first acquisition of Tchibo, as we were confident of our brand offering, leading retail position, and ability to make it even better by expanding and bringing in new partners without diluting our brand. We also make sure our customers can have the Brands For Less experience across our different in-house offerings like, Toys For Less and Homes For Less.
9. Be data-driven to improve your decision-making process
Research and feedback is paramount for business success. Thanks to emerging technologies, gathering data has never been as easy. Take advantage of this, because data is crucial for informing your business decisions, from making new product selections based on past results or trending searches, to looking ahead to future growth opportunities.
10/ Support innovation to stay ahead of the competition
While we are the largest off-price retailer in the Middle East, we need to continually innovate on a micro and macro levels to keep our customers engaged and ensure we stay in the lead. For example, we’ve achieved this through expanding our first Brands For Less into other category offshoots in homeware and children/toys and through acquisitions/partnerships to enter new markets. While your business needs to stay true to its central offering, customers always want new experiences, so it’s important to be curious and think of ways to keep moving and improving.