BEIRUT: Claudia Kassab Tarazi is not a woman of small dreams. The 40-year-old left a successful post in Dubai only a few years ago and took a leap – a big one at that. She is now the founding partner and managing director of Retail Consulting Group, a retail consulting firm specializing in the development of shopping centers.
While being a shopping center specialist sounds glamorous, she said it did not come easy. The profession is not something one can major in at university, and is still largely new in the region. It was only during her time in Dubai that Tarazi found her calling.
“The five years I worked in Dubai, I felt that this is what I wanted to do,” she told The Daily Star, her passion for the job made obvious through beaming eyes and a big smile.
While in the Emirates capital she worked for Aswaq Management and Services, an affiliated company of Societe des Centres Commerciaux, a major French retail consulting and development firm that specializes in shopping centers.
“I don’t like to do apartment design, even though I studied interior architecture, and I found that big firms usually take on the big projects and I was going to remain stationary.”
So she began toying with the idea of returning to Beirut and founding a retail consulting firm. Encouraged by her husband, who also wanted to move back, she set off to do what very few have done before.
“I felt that I was good at what I was doing, so I felt like I could be on my own ... but it’s a risk. You think that it’s easier being on your own but it’s not,” she explained.
It was a task made even harder by the fact that very few people have even heard of her profession.
“Even those who want to develop a shopping center don’t realize that they need a shopping center specialist, someone like me” says Tarazi.
“They believe they just need to retain the architect to create the design and the rest will just follow ... The good news is that they are realizing more and more that they cannot build a shopping mall alone.”
Shopping center specialists work with both the mall developer and the architect, beginning with the location of the project and moving on to the mall’s mixed use, as it could include offices and even a hotel.
There are different types of shopping malls to consider: super-regional malls such as the Dubai Mall, which attracts shoppers from across the region and even the world; regional malls, which are smaller in size, and community and neighborhood malls.
Shopping center specialists work with the architects, providing guidelines to work with, and then following up, reviewing the preliminary designs and offering recommendations. They also study ways to reduce costs for tenants and landlords.
Once execution begins, shopping center specialists will decide on where each unit, such as movie theaters, supermarket, and stores, should go.
“It’s a very detailed process; each unit has a weighing factor based on its location, its area, the size of its shop front, and what is next to it,” Tarazi explained.
“Once we all agree that this is what we want, we begin implementing the project.”
During the implementation process, every tenant provides the consultants with his own design to be reviewed and to make sure it fits the project’s guidelines.
“There is a design manual that we prepare with the architect, and it includes certain details such as where he [the tenant] can put up his store sign, the materials he can use for the façade; it has to go with the theme,” she says.
There are also general guidelines put forth by the Middle East Council of Shopping Centers, which is part of the International Council of Shopping Centers, that need to be respected.
One of the most important things a specialist brings to a project is their strong relationship with big brands. Specialists usually contact brands before the project is finished in order to bring in what is known as the “anchors.” These include large departments stores, major clothing brands and large chain supermarkets. Since such brands attract a lot of people, they are integral to the success of the project, and specialists make sure they are happy with the design and are able to pick their locations early on.
Once the shopping center opens, specialists advise on choosing a mall manager, a marketing team, and a facility management team.
“The ideal is to engage with the developer as soon as he starts thinking of a project,” said Tarazi. “Once the landlord brings in the architect and his consultants, we should be retained and become a part of the team. This, however, does not always happen and we are often contacted late into the design.
So far, however, RCG has been lucky. The company, which currently comprises only a few people, has been called in to work on big projects in the Middle East and further afield, including in the Republic of the Congo and Angola.
“We scan the country on the Internet then we travel and visit areas and malls. Sometimes we appoint companies to do in-depth research of the demographic,” she explained, adding that prior knowledge of preferred brands and food and drink habits is important.
Working as a shopping center specialist also requires certain skills, most notably social ones.
“I get the trust of the people and I work from the bottom of my heart,” she said. “When I take on a project, I have to do it in a perfect way, and the person can see that.”
With a 3-month-old at home, things have become more hectic and adjustments have had to be made.
“I don’t work long hours for the time being, as I of course need to spend time with the baby, but when I work, I’m very focused,” she said.
Tarazi also gets a lot of support from her husband, which she admits not many Lebanese woman are lucky enough to have.
But she believes personal circumstances shouldn’t be a hindrance to any women who are aiming big.
“The right product, the right time, and the right people minimize the risk,” she said. “It needs strength. You jump, but you don’t jump without the necessary package.”