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Where the mall meets the metaverse

Shoppers at the Galleria mall Supplied
More than 34 million people visited The Galleria Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi, last year
  • AMRC is working on projects that blur physical and digital retail
  • CEO David Robinson hopes to unveil ‘game-changer’ concepts
  • Footfall and sales at The Galleria rose in 2022

“We’re working on a number of initiatives that start to blur the boundaries between Web3, the metaverse, and how that is implemented in a physical space.”

This is not how retail bosses used to talk a few years ago – but the digital habits that shoppers developed during the pandemic are here to stay, so the industry has to change too, according to David Robinson, the CEO of Al Maryah Retail Company (AMRC).

AMRC, which operates The Galleria in Abu Dhabi, could unveil two of those boundary-blurring projects later this year, Robinson told AGBI.

“We are well advanced in terms of concept development and getting to proof of concept on two of these initiatives, which, for me, are game-changers. They call it ‘phygital’ – physical and digital retail working together – and it’s an exciting area of growth.”

The details remain under wraps, but Robinson added that AMRC started on its physical/digital strategy at the start of 2021, but work has significantly accelerated over the past six to nine months.

“The sums of investment are substantial because a lot of it is pioneering. We’ve been working with some very smart thinkers from all over the world. I’m hoping that sometime soon we should be in a position to proof the concept and then be able to speak with authority on what the next stage of evolution holds for us,” he said.

In the meantime, The Galleria has already adopted some of the tools that allow retailers to integrate physical stores with online shopping.

“Digital has enabled us to provide conveniences via an app such as contactless interactive wayfinding within the destination, as well as QR code sign ups and online reservation systems,” Robinson said.

While the convenience of e-commerce means it will keep growing, “the physical in-person experience continues to offer guests aspects that are not easily replicated online.”

The Galleria’s performance in 2022 demonstrates this: five of its top trading months occurred since March. Footfall rose 10 percent year-on-year and sales increased 17 percent.

“The UAE retail market has bounced back more quickly and strongly than anyone had anticipated,” Robinson said.

“I remember vividly when Covid struck, we were given less than 36 hours to close centres down. But five weeks later, we were given equally as little time to reopen and to be on top of various health and safety regulations.

Office Building, Building, Architecture
David Robinson, inset, says Al Maryah Retail Company is working with ‘very smart thinkers from all over the world’ on initiatives for The Galleria. Picture: Supplied

“Because of the very proactive government initiatives, that has allowed us – unlike other parts of the world – to bounce back faster and condition the market to what was the new norm back then.

“We had occupancy restrictions, thermal cameras, face masks, gloves and so on, so it was quite an impactful operational exercise to oversee. And yet since then, it’s just been growth upon growth.”

The Galleria, which opened in 2013 and underwent expansion in 2019, had more than 34 million visitors last year. Seventy-six new outlets opened, taking the mall’s total to 400.

The rebound in tourism has played its part in attracting footfall. Abu Dhabi’s airports reported a 250 percent year-on-year rise in passenger numbers in the third quarter of 2022, while the number of hotel guests in the emirate rose by 25 percent year-on-year between January to October.

People are not just there for the shopping. A quarter of The Galleria’s units are food-and-drink outlets; it also houses indoor play areas, cinemas and sport facilities.

This is a trend that is being replicated at shopping centres across the Gulf. At the Mall of Saudi, being developed by Majid Al Futtaim in north Riyadh, large areas will be allocated to dining, leisure and entertainment. Research from Knight Frank Middle East has found that over 50 percent of the new retail space being developed in Riyadh is dedicated to entertainment venues.

“Experiences beyond shopping alone are very important,” said Robinson, adding that this change “was well underway before the start of the pandemic, but which has accelerated since”.

The same goes for the metaverse and the companies that will build it. “The UAE as a whole is trying to build on the metaverse, Web3 and blockchain sectors,” he said. “Where we’re located on Al Maryah Island, we’re seeing the establishment of blockchain organisations at Abu Dhabi Global Market growing exponentially.”

Robinson conceded that “we’re all still figuring it out”, but said he was very much looking forward to the “next two, to three, to four to five years”.

“It’s a steep learning curve for all of us – but it’s here to stay.”

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