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Super Market Savvy
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Noor Faisal Al-Qatami ’07 used to pass time between her Bentley classes doing what she loved: window shopping at local supermarkets. “I like food products, the way they are merchandised and placed on shelves,” says the former Management major. “It’s an art to have it done in a way that’s attractive and sends a message to the customer.”
The self-described “grocery fanatic” knows she’s atypical. Most people regard food shopping as mundane at best. Top complaints include congested aisles, too-few open checkouts, out-of-stock items and indifferent staff, according to a 2015 study of U.S. supermarkets by Consumer Reports. These criticisms have no place on the shelf at Saveco, the three-yearold mega market that Al-Qatami founded in her native Kuwait. As she puts it: “I wanted to create a destination shopping experience for the family.”
CREATING AN EXPERIENCE
A trip to Saveco would likely leave new customers wide-eyed at the generously sized aisles of food and beverages, kept up to Al-Qatami’s high standards of organization and cleanliness. Then there’s the indoor playground for the kids, restaurants and cafés, florist shop, toys, clothing, home furnishings and electronics … even a food academy that offers cooking classes.
The attention to detail includes the store’s design. Al-Qatami worked closely with architects to incorporate natural elements that would create a relaxing environment for shoppers. Sunlight pours in through large windows; spacious aisles provide ample room to navigate the shopping cart (or trolley, as they say in Kuwait); palm trees sit at the base of the escalators, with treetops towering high over the second floor. The logo’s colors — green and blue — were chosen to symbolize land and water.
“We provide customers with more than what they want,” she says of a philosophy that crosses into the after-shopping experience: A Saveco worker, wearing a crisp white shirt and tie, transports and unloads purchases to the customer’s car.
BRANDING THE MARKET
The idea to open her own store surfaced in 2010. Al-Qatami had been living in Boston, while her husband, Fawi, was doing a fellowship at Boston University. Pregnant and battling morning sickness, she temporarily returned to Kuwait to live with her parents. Having gotten used to U.S. supermarkets, she was shocked at the condition of the government food co-ops where most Kuwaitis shopped.
“I complained to my Dad about the lack of product availability, organization and aesthetics,” she recalls. “Products are thrown in piles, in no particular order. You might find chocolate in the chocolate aisle or the chip aisle.”
Her father’s answer: “Do something about it.”
Al-Qatami developed a business strategy based on high-quality food and other products, convenience, competitive pricing, customer service and a commitment to work with young Kuwaiti entrepreneur suppliers. Store models were inspired by U.S. brands such as Target, Gelson’s, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market.
Her original plan was to launch an online store before settling on the location for a brick-and-mortar operation. A small team began working out of her parents’ garage, doing data entry and product photography (“I would meet suppliers at Starbucks rather than the garage because it was less embarrassing”).
Building the technology infrastructure was more difficult than expected, however: The flagship store opened in Al-Rai before the website was even complete. The opening came with challenges of its own. A two-year wait for electricity to be linked to the building, for example, meant two years of paying rent, paying salaries, and ordering and returning product.
“I had already imported products from the U.S. and they were expiring,” Al-Qatami recalls. “I also lost the trust of local suppliers who had placed product on our shelves.”
Staffing presented hurdles as well. Companies are required to hire people already living in Kuwait, with or without appropriate skills and experience. Al-Qatami designed an education program for Saveco employees, to teach skills such as merchandising and product promotion. The now-prestigious program enables staff to earn ISO (International Organization for Standardization) certification.
“I’m successful because I have a good team working with me,” she says. “If they’re happy, they make sure the customer is happy.”
The philosophy seems to work. There are two Saveco mega stores, a Wholesome Foods by Saveco organic food market and, coming soon, a Saveco-To-Go convenience store. Customers are 80 percent Kuwaitis and 20 percent expatriates. Most are middle to high income, though high promotion days — Mondays and weekends — draw a wider spectrum of shoppers.
“We have a very loyal customer base,” she reports. “They get offended if anyone talks badly about the Saveco brand, even going so far as to defend the company on social media before we get a chance to respond.”
Al-Qatami had a mind for business early on. In 1990, at age 7, she became fascinated by the different currencies of France and Switzerland when she was buying candy bars in the neighboring countries. The same year brought a hard lesson for her family, which had prospered in the steel industry. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the family lost millions and was pushed into debt.
“My Dad told my cousins and me that if we wanted money, we had to work for it,” she recalls of her first job, tending the vegetable garden of her family’s nursery for 5 francs (U.S. $0.35) a week.
Postwar, her father was able to rebuild the company, now the largest steel provider in Kuwait.
“It was very inspirational,” says the alumna, who worked in the steel factory for a year before forging her own path. “I wanted people to respect me in the same way they respected my father. I always wanted to be like him. But I wanted to make a name for myself.”
That kind of confidence has been essential for Al-Qatami, particularly in a male-dominated landscape. While noting that Kuwait is one of the most liberated Gulf countries regarding women in the workforce — the National Bank of Kuwait and Zain telecommunications company have female CEOs — Al-Qatami has taken roads less traveled by women, in the steel and supermarket industries.
“If you realize that there’s no difference between you and your male colleagues,” she says, “you will be able to prove that you’re just the same or even better.”
RISK AND OPPORTUNITY
Setbacks come with the territory of being an entrepreneur. Back in 2007, Al-Qatami had joined franchise kings Robert Grayson and George Nadaff to co-found Boston-based Business Expansion International, which focused on taking well-known U.S. brands to the Middle East. Most manufacturers didn’t recognize the benefit of having a mediator, however. The trio then opened a Prep cosmetics store in Newport, R.I., which fell into bankruptcy when the city closed its main street for renovations during the peak summer season. (Al-Qatami says nearly every store on the street went out of business.)
Though the experiences prompted Al-Qatami to question her business acumen, she held fast to the risk-taking spirit.
“I’m quite the opposite of my husband, who thinks everything through the long term,” she laughs. “I don’t have the fear factor that most people usually have. I see the benefit more than the risk.”
The business world has taken notice. Her accolades include a place on the Arabian Business list of the 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2016 and selection as 2016 Businesswoman of the Year; the Arab Woman Awards’ 2016 Entrepreneur Award; and Europe Business Assembly’s Best Manager and Best Enterprises awards.
Al-Qatami’s three sons are already showing an eye for enterprise. During a recent school vacation, her 7- and 9-year-olds earned Lego mini-figures from Mom for promoting iTunes gift cards to Saveco customers. Their business bent has some precedence. Working in her father’s nursery at age 8, Al-Qatami focused on selling one product.
“Roses were the most expensive thing in that size. I could easily carry them around and tried to make sure that everyone who came in bought one.” She smiles at the memory of her persistence. “It kind of embarrassed my mom.”
President Larson, along with guest experts, joined Bloomberg’s Carol Massar and Cory Johnson, to talk about how college and universities are preparing graduates to navigate diverse environments.