On June 26, 12 years to the date of the launch of his first solo project at the same location, Omar Hadeed opened Skechers in Trincity Mall in east Trinidad. The snug corner of the mall, opposite Tru Valu supermarket, was home to the Converse store for years, which the now 36-year-old Hadeed opened when he was 24.
The launch of the brand’s third branch came right on the heels of a three-month stay-at-home order implemented by the government to curb the spread of covid19 and visitors to the mall were out in their numbers.
A few customers spoke to Business Day with positive reviews. “I like it," said one shopper. “Compared to online prices, it’s good.” A fan of the brand, she said she was happy to have it close by.
“It’s a nice layout, and the prices are competitive,” said another customer, a first-timer who was nonetheless happy with her purchase.
Hadeed said the Trincity branch had surpassed their budget for the day during the opening and he had high hopes for its success at the location.
Although those who were at the store for the launch benefited from a 20 per cent discount at the time, Hadeed said even at full price, they are still competitive. “Our prices are still 10 per cent less than online prices, which we try to sustain throughout all of our brands.”
At an interview last week at the Sports and Games head office in Trincity, where Hadeed is a director, he spoke candidly with Business Day about expanding his retail businesses and entrepreneurship during a pandemic.
Hadeed is the founder and CEO of First Retail Inc, which partners with a range of international brands including Aldo, Aeropostale, Bath and Body Works and Domino's Pizza at malls and street stores across the country. The umbrella company boasts over 50 outlets nationwide with a combined total of over 500 employees. The team will be adding close to 100 additional employees with the launch of the new Skechers store and Hadeed’s upcoming project on July 10, Victoria’s Secret at Gulf City Mall in La Romaine.
He said he and his team had been working on bringing the Victoria Secret’s franchise to TT for five years. “They (the brand owners) all say the same thing. ‘It’s a smaller market. We’re not interested in going there at this time.’ They don’t understand the demand in TT to consume.”
Hadeed was able to persuade parent company, L Brands to open Bath and Body Works in TT, which now has two locations – at West Mall, Westmoorings and Gulf City. With the combined success of Bath and Body works and First Retail’s other brands, he was able to persuade L Brands to bring the popular lingerie franchise, starting with their beauty and accessory line. “It’s not going to be the full line,” he said. “We will start with fragrances, lotions, handbags, jewellery and underwear.”
Although brands such as Aldo and Victoria's Secret closed some stores across the US and Canada, Hadeed said they are opening just as many stores. "What they are doing is what a lot of retailers are doing, which is consolidating the spaces they have in some of the malls." He said the soon-to-be-opened Victoria's Secret store in TT is going to be a reduced size to what people are used to seeing.
"Everyone within the retail space has been restructuring...Retailers, by way of resizing and retooling, are putting themselves in a better position for the future."
He said many brands are looking for international expansion. "Their markets, such as the US, have become a bit saturated and competitive. There's a lot of room for these brands to grow. They don't have as much international exposure as they would have in the past (and) they are now exploring more international opportunities."
Hadeed said after spending time in London, where he completed a degree in business management, he was inspired to bring a similar shopping experience to TT. “Being in and around the high streets of London and seeing the retail foundation, I wanted to replicate that as best as possible in TT.”
He said his vision was to bring these international brands to TT, adding he and his team have done intense market research to understand what customers’ preferences were while shopping online to get a sense of what consumers in TT wanted.
He said for all their brands, including Skechers, they offer the same selection shoppers would see online, and for the same price. “That meant cutting out the middleman and going straight to the suppliers so we could remain competitive. That’s the only way it works.”
He said Skechers has a fantastic following.
“Yes, you will get those who criticise, but those customers purchase when these brands have clearance sales. They are usually out of season (and) when something is out of season in our stores, we slash our prices the same way.”
Post-lockdown pent up demand
On January 1, Hadeed had high hopes for the year 2020 but the pandemic had other plans. “This year was supposed to be, for us, a very aggressive year in terms of expansion.”
He and his team have been working diligently over the last couple of years to build these brands, and he joked that initially, expansions were meant to take place in April and May when the country was on lockdown.
"Since we've opened our stores, we've seen a momentum of customers purchasing. Some may call it pent up demand," said Hadeed. He said because customers who usually shop abroad are now unable to travel, and because of border control, many online purchases are being delayed, the situation provided an opportunity for customers to shop local.
He added, based on the feedback that he got from customers so far, many consumers are converting to local shopping.
Hadeed said even before covid19, First Retail faced economic challenges. “It’s not been a very strong economic period for TT over the past three to four years. We’ve had many difficulties, particularly with foreign exchange shortages, which have made the operation of any business difficult because we are primarily an import nation.”
"We don't receive (forex) on a regular basis and it poses some difficulties with suppliers from time to time, but we have a great relationship with our suppliers. For the most part, they work with us," he said.
On the bright side, Hadeed said the franchises were able to grow "at a more steady pace, rather than expand too quickly." He said by doing that, they have been able to maintain the quality of their products, staff and service.
Hadeed added businessmen are often vilified because of their forex usage, but he said what the public should understand is by retaining the purchases locally, they are using less forex.
"We are buying at wholesale price and that difference between the wholesale and retail price that customers purchase online via their credit card is the difference that goes into paying rent and employees." He said it is very beneficial, from their perspective.
He said the brands have been growing rapidly in the last four years, which has otherwise been a difficult period, especially for the retail sector with the growing competition of online sales.
“It’s easy to be in business when the sun is shining. It’s easy to do well when the economy is booming, and cash flow is great but that’s not always the case. It hasn’t been the case for the last four to five years as I’ve come into my prime as a businessman.”
Hadeed said being an entrepreneur means staying highly motivated when there is failure around you. He said the pandemic presented its own challenges.
One of the remedies for the challenges his businesses faced was the boom of online sales. When Hadeed came on board the family business, Sports and Games, with his father in 2009, he said placing a full catalogue of their products online was one of his first projects.
“For many years we struggled, but during the pandemic, sales surged at an unbelievable rate and if we did not have that platform, we would have really struggled over the last three months when stores were closed.”
He said the success of the online store continued even after stores reopened.
“There’s a lot of talk of retail not being what it used to be. Malls are suffering, street stores are on the decline, but I think you need both online and in-store.” Hadeed calls the approach omnichannel, which refers to the integration of different methods of shopping for consumers.
He said in-store shopping allows the customer to touch and feel the brand, and online acts as a facilitator. “The pandemic accelerated everything, including the use of technology.”
As physical distancing protocols have become the new normal, Hadeed said he plans to integrate online shopping platforms for other brands including Aldo, Skechers and Victoria’s Secret for consumers who are still hesitant to come into the store.
“Now that we’ve faced the biggest challenge in a generation, I feel confident that I would be able to lead an excellent team to the future.” Hadeed said it was a very difficult time for him as a businessman and as a human being. “It was the most uncertain times of my life.”
He said one of the things that kept him going was the care of his employees. When asked how he was able to look after his employees, he joked, “To be honest with you, I think they took more care of me, than me of them.” He said he has a close relationship with many of his employees and they checked in on him and his family just as much as he checked in with them. “They are fantastic. We work as a family.”
He said his team went to great lengths to ensure when stores reopened they were well prepared for customers and for staff. Physical distancing and sanitising protocols have been placed in all stores. The goal, he said, is to make customers feel as safe as possible. “The government has done a tremendous job. Now the responsibility falls on us as citizens.”
Hadeed said he began his career at a young age, and he has made mistakes along the way, but through his failures, he has only gained experience and knowledge. With his first business, the Converse store, he said he made decisions that he regretted. “I got emotional, and business is not emotional.”
Even being that young, Hadeed said he had a vision and he is happy to see it come to fruition.
“Everyday when I get up, it is an accomplishment, knowing I started with this dream and it’s now real.” The people of this country are resilient, he said, and are fortunate to be better off than most globally. “As we embark on an unknown future, it is very important for us to ensure that we continue to fulfil our vision.”