GapMaps may be a digital platform, but it’s made possible by a talented team who love working with clients and finding solutions. The Powered by People series will introduce you to them, one by one.
Simon Newberry joins GapMaps to explore opportunities for the platform in the Middle East North Africa region, from his base in Dubai. A backpacking trip to Australia set him on a path that has resulted in 15 years’ retail experience in the area – and he brings a nuanced understanding of the market to the team.
Tell us a bit about your background. What drew you to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region?
As a town planner specialising in economics I started off working on new sites for supermarkets in the UK then went to Australia as a backpacker to watch the Olympics. I ran out of money pretty quickly and needed a job so I ended up connecting with Tony Dimasi, then at Urbis, who put me on a plane back to the UK within the week as part of establishing an office to help Westfield set up their European operations. After a spell back in Australia I started working in the international business. At that time Australians were embedded in the property industry in Dubai and particularly the retail industry, I spearheaded a permanent office for them in 2006.
What do you enjoy most about living in Dubai?
At a personal level, with a family in the UK and my wife’s family in Queensland, Dubai is the perfect neutral place to live. The ability to travel, for work and pleasure, to Europe, Asia and Australia is worth putting up with 2 months of unbearable sweating. It’s not all glitz and glamour, there are real people, real communities and plenty of things to do beyond the fancy hotels and restaurants that you see in the tourist brochures.
You’ve spent the last 15 years studying retail in the area. What are some of the characteristics or nuances across MENA and what advice can you give to retailers?
Whereas in many established markets the retail sector has grown organically over hundreds of years, the retail market in this region has jumped from souks to super-regional shopping centres in an instant. With so much opportunity for retailers in the UAE and broader region the challenge is to focus on those countries and locations which represent the best return on investment.
What’s most exciting about these markets?
The most exciting thing about retail in these markets is the rapid rate of change, with the region generally benefitting from strong economic growth, increasing disposable incomes and large populations but with each country having a unique culture and systems it’s exciting to see the different responses of the retail sector in each market.
What benefits can you see GapMaps offer for businesses entering or in the region?
Whilst official statistics in much of the region have come a long way, they are still well behind the more familiar retail markets in Europe and Australia where any consultant can easily establish how many and what types of people live in any street and how much they spend on bread or milk in a year. Across MENA, statistics typically used to inform any retail analysis, are not available or do not pass simple logic checks. In particular where you have so many different languages, cultures and shopping behaviours – undertaking surveys is more costly and less reliable than in other markets. GapMaps can mitigate some of these challenges faced by those wanting to understand the real pattern of shoppers in the region.
What’s your role with the company and what are you most looking forward to?
My role at Gapmaps is focused on exploring opportunities for the platform across the MENA region. With a relatively innovative way of looking at an old problem, I’m looking forward to building long term partnerships with retailers that will support their growth across the region.