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Women-only shops could solve MENA’s $2trn equality dilemma

Optician chain Magrabi openings women-only staffed store in Saudi's Riyadh
  • $2 trillion added to MENA economies by realising women’s job potential
  • Saudi to see more female-only staffed stores with moves to Saudisation
  • Career opportunities for educated women leave room for improvement 

When Deema Almasri joined optical retailer Magrabi to manage its new outlet in Saudi capital Riyadh, she said a big motivating factor was female empowerment.

Taking the helm at the optician’s store at the Hamra Mall, Almasri is in charge of the company’s first female-only staffed outlet.

It’s a growing fashion, particularly in the Middle East, with more brands interested in exploring the strategy and adding this type of store to the portfolio, according to analysts. 

“The trend has picked up, particularly post-pandemic,” Rabia Yasmeen, senior research consultant at Euromonitor International, said.

“In some countries, this is driven by increasing workforce participation for women and thus opening sectors to upskill them in related product categories.

“In other cases, brands are also looking into developing one-on-one interaction with female shoppers.” 

Within the Gulf, Saudi Arabia in particular is expected to see more female-only staffed stores as the country moves towards Saudisation – increased workforce participation of Saudi nationals – and opens more sectors for women employment, she added.

In the UAE, notable brands such as Adidas have opened a female-dedicated store – which also houses dedicated products for women’s sportswear and activewear.

Person, Human, ShopSupplied
Adidas store for women in Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Beyond the GCC region Levi’s opened a female-only store in Pakistan, which has positioned itself to develop retail as a rewarding career choice for women.

The trend is emerging at the same time as PwC Middle East released new research claiming as much as $2 trillion could be added to the economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by realising women’s potential in the regional workforce.

Increasing the share of women in work in MENA to match the male employment rate could increase the GDP by 57 percent, PwC analysts said.

They added that while young women are more likely than ever to be highly educated, their employment prospects and career opportunities leave room for improvement. 

This is highlighted by the “expectations vs reality” gap that young women face, where they face a disconnect between their expectations and lived experiences of employers. 

Around 94 percent of surveyed women favoured “work-life balance” and “training and development opportunities” as their most valued employer characteristic. 

However, only 62 percent of women agreed that their employer thinks the same.

Hani Ashkar, PwC Middle East senior partner said embedding diversity strategies for the entire career lifecycle, setting diversity performance indicators to ensure fair assessments for women and reinforcing supportive workplace cultures are “critical steps” for MENA employers to attract, recruit and retain talented young women. 

Norma Taki, inclusion and diversity leader at PwC Middle East, added: “In recent years, women in the MENA region have made unprecedented gains as a vital part of the workforce.

“This progress is momentus and young MENA women are more likely than ever before to be in work.

“With roles ranging from policy making, diplomacy, entrepreneurship and corporate leadership the future for working women within the region looks promising.”

She added that while women are usually well-represented in the frontlines of the retail sector, they also need to be seen in the boardroom.

“Retailers need to better cater to women’s purchasing preferences – women are responsible for the majority of household spend.

“There needs to be more women in retail executive positions who are responsible for making strategic, product decisions.”

One retailer taking this mission seriously is Magrabi. As part of a major 57-store expansion plan across the Middle East, the optical retailer has opened its first female-only staffed store.

The launch comes as Magrabi commits to having 50 percent of its workforce from the entire value chain, and 50 percent of leaders, represented by women by 2025.

Therese Magdy, head of people and culture at Magrabi, said: “Our flagship store is the first-of-its-kind in Riyadh, where only female staff manage the store, pushing the boundaries of what is expected from a retailer in a region that is still behind on social issues.

“This store represents the first step in our journey to empower women in business across the Middle East.

“We have grown our female colleagues in-store [from six percent to 15-20 percent today] and have a number of female leaders representing Magrabi at the top.” 

She added that women from Saudi Arabia are the 10th most educated female population on the globe, where 70 percent of university graduates are women which is establishing a top-tier talent pool for business to leverage.

“We do not differentiate employees by gender or nationality, so this doesn’t become an obstacle when assessing pay,” said Magdy.

“We are also committed to equal hiring opportunities and are proud to have recently hired pregnant women knowing they would be taking up to six months maternity leave in the near-term.”

Regional hypermarket operator Lulu Group has also opened female-only staffed outlets.

Person, Human, ClothingSupplied
Lulu Express in Saudi’s Jeddah is managed by a team of 103 women

Last year, the company opened Lulu Express in Jeddah, which is fully managed by a team of 103 women led by general manager Maha Mohammed Alqarni.

At the time, Yusuffali MA, chairman of Lulu Group, said: “We have always tried to give training and employment to the youth and especially the skilled women of this region.

“It’s our commitment to the visionary policies of the leadership to empower the women workforce.

“We are also proud that this new initiative to empower women will go a long way in opening new opportunities and career options for the youth in general and women in particular.”

According to Yasmeen, it’s not only shops that are being staffed exclusively by women.

“We also see cafés and coffee specialists now opening these stores. Starbucks has recently dedicated several stores as female-only in Saudi Arabia and India,

She added that while a range of retailers may be drawn to such strategies, this is a “particularly interesting area” to explore for lifestyle brands having a unique consumer segment largely as women.  

“Not only do these strategies help in localisation of retail services but may break existing gaps between brand and the end consumer, as women are often not the shopper despite being the end consumer of some product categories,” she said.

“These stores can foster inclusivity for the female workforce and shoppers, empowering decision-making and creating feedback loops to develop products that speak to female consumers.” 

With experiential retail important in the region, retailers can also develop a dedicated shopping experience to increase brand equity among female consumer segments, Yasmeen added.

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