Binoy, you’re the man in charge of sourcing and buying all the houseware goods sold in Pan Emirates’ 15 stores. That means you shop for a living, doesn’t it?
That’s one way of putting it but it isn’t quite as glamorous as it sounds, I’m afraid. I’m not shopping for myself, after all. I’m shopping for our customers. That means I have to try and predict what kind of things they will want to be buying next season and then ensure we have it in stock. That’s quite high-pressured because if I get it wrong, people will go elsewhere.
So, what falls under your remit?
Houseware and furnishings, mainly. That includes candles, fragrances, lighting, picture frames, rugs, mats, bedding, pillows, cushions…the department’s budget is Dh35 million, and the aim is to sell what we buy for about Dh210 million.
How do you do it then? How do you know what will be popular?
Well, that’s the trick. There are trend-predictor websites and I use those. They’ll tell you what colours, shapes, shades and materials are coming into vogue. But I also speak to customers in store, and our showroom staff, to get a feel for what’s wanted. I go to maybe 12 international trade fairs a year – Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Chicago, etc. – to find inspiration, make contacts and, hopefully, contracts too. And while I’m there I will visit other department stores to see what’s happening around the world. But the most important thing is simply getting a feel for your own market.
So, for example, in the Middle East, in home furnishings, blues and greens don’t generally sell well. No one really knows why, and brown and beige – more classical colours – are more popular here. So, if blue and green are coming into fashion, whereas a UK buyer might buy everything that year in those shades, I need to temper that with my own experience that it won’t sell.
Are there other things you need to consider?
Many things. You need to be able to trust your supplier, of course. And since many of our goods are made internationally, they need to be able to get it to the UAE. But once what I buy is in store, it needs to create a story. It needs to appeal to the lifestyle the customer aspires to.
Take candles as an example. This sounds like a simple thing but we need a range – tea lights, pillar, votive, jar – all in the same style so they create an experience, if you will. If a supplier can’t fit those very precise specifications, I can’t use them. And there’s the price. Some people think I just buy what I like. If only it was that easy!
Does that mean you sometimes buy things you don’t like?
Well… not things I don’t like – it’s always good stuff. But let’s just say I have quite different tastes to what might sell best at Pan Emirates – perhaps because I’m from a different country and culture to a lot of our shoppers. I have some of our items at home, but I have other things too.
It must be a thrill when you buy something that goes on to become a bestseller?
This is the joy of the job. My proudest ever purchase was actually a dehumidifier. This was before I was working for Pan Emirates. They had never sold a dehumidifier before – in fact I don’t think there were many places in the UAE that sold them. I saw one at a fair and I was convinced this was something that people here would want. It makes sense with the weather. So I made space in the budget and took a risk. Fortunately, it became one of our biggest sellers. I think it was the largest revenue generator that year. I got a certificate.
Ever done the opposite and bought something that just hasn’t sold?
Unfortunately, of course. I once tried some funky shapes with lighting but… well, the customers didn’t take to them. They didn’t sell. That’s not nice. It’s your reputation on the line. After that I was very careful for some years. The Middle East is perhaps not a market for too many risks in housewares.
Any other trade secrets?
Not secrets but you learn it can be the little things that determine whether something becomes popular or not. Like with lights. If they don’t have dimmers here, people often won’t buy them. There’s a real demand for that choice of soft or bright lighting. Maybe it’s to do with how bright the sun is by day, I don’t know. And picture frames – these days I’ll only buy them if they come with both hooks for hanging and a stand to free stand. That flexibility is a surprisingly big deal. You pick up on things like that with experience.