The retail sector has undergone a dramatic change over the past decade, shifting from the more traditional profile of small shops and souks towards larger malls and dedicated shopping districts.
A recent study of Qatar's real estate sector from consulting firm DTZ predicted that in spite of the global economic slowdown, the retail segment would remain strong, "with demand significantly outstripping supply over the short to medium term".
The study, released in late December, estimated there were around 500,000 sq metres of Gross Lettable Area (GLA) in Doha alone, with vacancy rates to remain negligible in the coming years as the country's rising population, increasing levels of affluence and personal disposable income would continue to drive the sector.
With new retail projects either under construction or in the planning stages, Doha's GLA is expected to top 1m sq metres by 2012, a far cry from the 45,000 sq metres of 2000. Much of this new retail space is being developed in conjunction with massive property projects such as The Pearl Qatar, which will have nearly 200,000 sq metres dedicated to retailing, and the soon-to-open Lagoona Mall, with more than 50,000 sq metres.
Though retail space is increasing in Qatar, so is demand, with a number of key economic indicators that point to retailers there having a better year in 2009 than many of their counterparts in neighbouring countries.
Foremost among these are predictions that the economy will continue to expand strongly, though not at the double-digit rates enjoyed over the past few years.
According to a report issued by investment bank EFG Hermes in mid-January, Qatar can expect real GDP growth of 9% in 2009. While noting that private consumption growth will decelerate across much of the region due to wealth destruction related to the fall in global and regional stock markets, the report said, "It is important to note that Qatar will have the strongest economic figures in the region and one of the strongest globally as a result of a substantial jump in gas production."
Though the growth rate predicted by EFG Hermes is just half of the 18% projected by the Qatar National Bank (QNB) in a study conducted in mid-October, even this reduced rate of GDP expansion will outstrip growth in all the other countries in the region.
Another key indicator is projected per capita income, which the QNB report said would remain well above $63,000 this year, making Qatar one of the richest countries in the world.
This high per capita ratio will help sustain the retail sector at a time when sales and profits are expected to dip in most global economies.
Retailers will also benefit from an expected sharp fall in inflation, with price rises tipped to drop to 6% this year, less than half the 13.16% as of the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, and well down on the 15.8% in the previous quarter.
Though falling prices will be good news for consumers, as well as for retailers who will be able to cut costs when laying in stock, some outlets will still have to contend with high overheads. In particular, rental costs are not expected to retreat. This is due in part to the ongoing demand for retail space - vacancy rates in existing developments have fallen below 1%, according to the DTZ report - as well as to the fact that up-market malls have often been locked into long-term lease agreements with fixed rental rates.
One other positive for the retail sector is a sustained level of consumer confidence, reflecting Qataris' faith in the country's economic stability. According to the results of a MasterCard Worldwide survey, issued in mid-January, consumer confidence in Qatar is the second highest in the Gulf region, behind only Kuwait. At 76.2 out of 100, Qatar's consumers were rated as being fairly to very optimistic - good news for retailers.
With cash in the pockets of optimistic customers, strong demand and an expanding economy, Qatar's retail sector can look to the future with quiet confidence.