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Omar Hadeed: Making his own way in the world

By CARLA BRIDGLAL Thursday, August 10 2017

It’s not easy trying to convince a major international brand to open a store in the relatively tiny 1.4 million Trinidad & Tobago market, but Omar Hadeed has managed to persuade three of them to do so. As the local franchisee for Converse, Sketchers, and now Aldo, Hadeed, 34, has brought high street fast fashion to an eager clientele

He made his first solo venture into the world of retail—and fashion brands—when he was just 22, approaching Converse in 2006, and opening that flagship store in West Mall in 2007. But, he readily acknowledges, retail is in his blood— he’s the son of Charles Hadeed, the Managing Director of Sports & Games Ltd, a prominent local sports apparel and equipment retailer.

In fact, Hadeed’s two enterprises, First Apparel, Inc. and First Restaurant Inc., are all subsidiaries of the SG Group of Companies. First Apparel manages his fashion holdings, while First Restaurant, with partner Daniel Fakoory, manages the local Pita Pit and Domino’s chains.

“I’ve grown up in retail and as a little boy coming into the stores, I’ve always had a passion for it,” he told Business Day during an interview at his Trincity offices. Still, while he is grateful for the support and cushion having a strong family legacy in the business afforded him, it didn’t make it any less intimidating.

“I was young and inexperienced but through Converse I was able to learn how an international brand does business. I made some mistakes and errors along the way but I’ve been able to improve myself,” he said.

Hadeed graduated from Kingston University in the United Kingdom with a degree in Business Management in 2006, and almost immediately after graduation joined the family business. Then he decided to take it a step further and bring in his own brand. It was “fantastic cushioning” having a family background in retail, he says, because he was able to access the existing infrastructure.

“My dad was very supportive. Just like every father and son there would be moments where you don’t agree. I remember telling him I wanted to open my first Converse store and he didn’t believe going with one brand made much sense, he didn’t think it was such a smart move. That was my drive— to prove him wrong. But he was very supportive and even though he didn’t believe it would work he said I needed to make my own mistakes but he was there to guide me. When I did prove to him that it was successful it felt good,” he said.

“I’ll never forget the night before we opened, I said to him—I called out a figure and asked if he thought we’d make that on opening day. He said, ‘Son, I don’t think you’ll sell that figure for the whole week.’ And the next day, we beat that figure after just one hour of opening. I called him to tell him. By that afternoon he came down to the store to see if I was for real. But I was fortunate to have the support,” he laughed.

PARADE OF THE BRANDS

Bringing Converse (owned by shoe giant, Nike) and Sketchers to Trinidad were fairly easy, since both were just rebounding from financial pressures and were eager to do business, he said. Aldo, which launched its first local store on July 28 at the C3 complex in Corinth, South Trinidad, was a bit of a challenge.

It took six months for Hadeed to convince the Montreal, Canada-based Aldo that Trinidad & Tobago would be a profitable place to do business. “Trinidad was not a market ALDO had even considered entering anytime soon. I mean, they operate in cities with populations bigger than ours,” Hadeed said. What finally persuaded them was the solid performance of the other brands he manages.

And with that, Hadeed is confident that he’s been able to tap into the whole range of consumer tastes: Converse—targeted to a trendy, casual young adult/teenage market; Sketchers for the athletically inclined; and ALDO for a dressier, professional look. “There aren’t many brands operating here and that was a concern for them. Luckily our other brands have been successful,” he said.

And ALDO looks to be on track to continue that momentum—Hadeed noted that after just three days, the flagship local store has already surpassed its monthly projection for sales—leaving the company’s executives suitably impressed. “We’ve definitely put Trinidad & Tobago on the map for them—they’ve even added our national flag to their display collection of countries in which they operate,” he said. ALDO is still less than a week old, but he assured that there are plans for expansion.

OVERCOMING THE ONLINE CHALLENGE

Most news about economic activity coming out of Trinidad & Tobago is bleak. The latest Central Bank statistics (up to September 2016) point to negative to stagnating economic growth since December 2014. The Retail Price Index suggests that from a base year of 2015, the cost of clothing and footwear has increased 5.7 per cent as of May 2017.

While some of his colleagues might justifiably have a more negative outlook about new business ventures, Hadeed sees the current downturn as an opportunity to ride the wave when the tide finally turns.

He acknowledges that there has been a slowdown and retail has indeed become more difficult, but he’s picked up on one trend in particular that he believes these established brands like ALDO, Sketchers and Converse can truly capitalise on in the local market: recapturing the online spend.

“The trends are very simple. I am seeing a significant spend still happening online. What I am trying to do is get that shift back from online to in-store,” he said. His strategy entails bringing these prominent brands that people, especially younger people and those who travel may be familiar with, and giving them the same options they would find online at a more reasonable price point—often, according to him, significantly cheaper than online.

Whatever is happening at ALDO internationally, or even Sketchers and Converse for that matter, he says, will also be available in Trinidad— including sales. He acknowledges that there is no local option for shopping online at these outlets, but the main selling point remains, “whatever you see online you can actually get in our stores.”

“We have the full collection and as they introduce new products so do we. And we have the exact same price if not cheaper,” he said, especially because the sales taxes and custom duties are already considered in the final price. “The volume we’ve sold can be comparable to what people would have bought online,” he added.

Hadeed also believes that by bringing brands here, Trinidad & Tobago is getting more value for its valuable foreign exchange reserves, noting that the brands he has partnered with have thus far been accommodating of the foreign exchange crunch in the country. Then there is the added benefit of employment creation. ALDO has hired 12 new staff members to run operations.

He says people have the wrong impression regarding foreign exchange but he is bringing competitive brands to the country. “When I see comments, they’re often very negative—where are we getting the foreign exchange to bring in these brands? But I ask, are there any local shoe manufacturers? Apparel manufacturers? No. So at the end of the day everything is imported and everything needs foreign exchange.

THE EVOLVING CONSUMER

Hadeed deliberately chose the C3 Centre in South Trinidad (Corinth, to be exact), as the location for the first ALDO. This is the second high-profile international brand launch in South Trinidad since Prestige Holdings, Ltd. chose SouthPark along the Tarouba Link Road to open its first Starbucks coffee house.

“People ask, why South? I say, why not? South has been growing significantly. Personally, I like the c3 set up. It encompasses everything that the customer is now. Customers don’t go to malls now just to shop— they go to be entertained. They go to the movies, they go to the gym, restaurants, the supermarket. There needs to be that level of entertainment. C3 offers that to the customer,” he said.

It’s the way other malls are going too, he adds. Although, he jokes, some of the customers he met during the store opening were from North Trinidad making the journey to the South just to get the ALDO experience. Retail is a very difficult business, time consuming, he adds, but it isn’t dying—it’s diversifying.

“There are other ways to shop now instead of just brick and mortar stores—ecommerce and direct mail. Customers have changed their buying patters. But as a retailer I have to see how best I can compete with that and I believe in giving my customers an experience. The best way to do that is through these brands because they are well recognised, customers are comfortable with them, and they know they have to keep ahead of the game and be innovative,” he said.

And while he wants to focus the rest of this year on building Aldo and Domino’s Pizza, Hadeed says he’s working on brining another major fast fashion retailer to Trinidad & Tobago soon. “I can’t say what it is yet, but it’s one of the biggest fashion retailers in the world so we’re excited,” he said.

Ultimately, he believes that if more of these international brands can begin to embrace Trinidad & Tobago as a profitable location, the country can become a shopping hub for the region.

“There are so many islands in the region that are just an hour or two by air from Trinidad. It would be so much more convenient than going to the US or Central America. There’s a 20 million-person market right here in the Caribbean,” he said.

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