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Mon 5 Feb 2018 05:21 PM

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Majid Al Futtaim CEO plots path to 21st century retail

Majid Al Futtaim group CEO Alain Bejjani says data analytics will soon transform the shopping experience

Majid Al Futtaim CEO plots path to 21st century retail

As Majid Al Futtaim CEO Alain Bejjani tells it, a seemingly-futuristic shopping experience in which data analytics are used to transform the customer “experience” isn’t far off. In fact, as our conversation reveals, it’s just around the corner.

Speaking to Arabian Business at his office in Dubai’s Majid Al Futtaim Tower, Bejjani says that digitisation – an important part of the company’s ethos – is ultimately aimed at gathering enough data to “create a relationship between the brand and the customer that is bespoke as possible.”

“Data technology allows us to develop digital services, as well as the brick-and-mortar customer experience, that is unique and tailored to every customer,” he says, adding that he sees Majid Al Futtaim’s mission going forward as “making sure that we continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible and bring to the consumer in this part of the world the best of what’s being offered worldwide.”

Bejjani scoffs at the notion of “digital disruption”, saying that the term distorts the possibilities that the 21st century holds for companies willing to adapt to changing technologies.

“I think the right way to frame it is as ‘digital enablement’. Because of, and thanks to, technology, we are now capable of doing a lot of things that you were never capable of physically doing before, simply because of the scale of things,” he says. “Technology today allows us to better understand the customer, and make sure that what we offer to our customers are tailored to each one, individually.”

When discussing what technology can bring to the customer, Bejjani also goes to great lengths to avoid using the term “consumer”, which he says runs contrary to the mission at hand for Majid Al Futtaim. “Consumers are fungible. People don’t care who they are. They are numbers. Customers, however, are individuals. A consumer has a number. A customer has a name. A customer is actually the relationship we want to develop… People want individuality.”

Majid Al Futtaim signed a partnership with Smart Dubai in 2016 to aid Dubai’s digitilisation plans

Data analytics in practice

Data analytics, Bejjani is careful to note, has already moved beyond being theoretical and advanced toward being practically actionable. This is a reality, he says, and one that we will soon all be seeing first hand. But how does this work in practice?

As a concrete example of the insights that can be gleaned from data, Bejjani points to a Majid Al Futtaim initiative to unveil digital services for VOX Cinemas. “Through our VOX app, you will be able to go and basically perform all the services you can get offline in the cinema. We will be able to know you better as a customer.

“For example, if you like a certain type of movie, rather than pushing movies you may not like we will be able to understand you better,” he explains. “If you like popcorn, there is no point pushing a promotion for nachos and cheese on you. We want to be able to give you something you want, and value, rather than something which is kind of a blanket for everyone. We will be able to do that for each and every one of our customers.”

The same concept, he enthusiastically points out, can work for a wide variety of brands – such as Carrefour. “Let’s say you’re a vegetarian. Why would we send you a promotion for meat, or some other product that you don’t consume?  Or if you’re lactose intolerant, why would we continue to push a dairy product, rather than sending you a soya-based alternative?”

Such data-driven knowledge, Bejjani says, ultimately results in a happy customer who, “with a smile on his face”, is able to use the time spent shopping in a way more suited to their individual preferences, rather than spent chasing the “must have” items.

55,300 sqm in Ajman City Centre Ajman will grow from 29,000 to 55,300 sqm in size on completion of its expansion in 2019

A company transformed

It goes without saying, but such a dramatic shift towards the future of retail comes with a host of challenges that Majid Al Futtaim has had to address. A technology-based company, of course, needs tech-savvy employees to all be working in tandem toward the same goal.

To that end, in December, Majid Al Futtaim announced plans to enhance its advanced analytics capabilities by recruiting data engineers, scientists and translators who will be embedded with the company’s varied business units. The ultimate goal: turning the vast amounts of collected data into results, in real-time. “We have been working on the mindset,” Bejjani explains, “because the understanding of technology and data analytics has to be across the board. You cannot just have silos in your organisation.”

To help drive this company-wide understanding, in June last year, the company launched its “School of Analytics and Technology”, located within the Majid Al Futtaim Leadership Institute in Dubai. At the moment, the curriculum, which will be rolled out to all of the company’s nearly 40,000 employees, covers 14 courses across three main pillars: data, analytics and technology, with modules that cover practical components – referred to as ‘labs’ – to ensure that employees get hands-on experience.

Importantly, a select group of employees are also being trained as “analytics translators”, who will act as the bridge between Majid Al Futtaim’s business verticals and a group of advanced analytics experts. These experts, according to Bejjani, will be the ones responsible for turning algorithms into actionable insights. “They are going to be dedicated, 24/7, to making sure that we capture all the data on our customers, making sure that this data is kept at the best global standards in terms of safety and cybersecurity, and ensuring that we mine it in the correct way.”

Aside from trying to improve the individual customer experience, Bejjani says that this data can also be beneficial to all the partners in Majid Al Futtaim’s ‘ecosystem’.

“It is about making sure that we actually give back to our retailers, the brands that work with us, as well as our business partners at large.

We will give them information and insight about their business in order to allow them to continuously better serve their customers.

“When they serve their customers better, they are serving our customers better,” he adds. “The data also allows us to make smarter choices on a continuous basis in whatever part of the business, whether it’s a supplier or a service provider, or if it’s in any other capacity.”

There are now eight City Centre malls in the UAE, and 13 in the wider Middle East

Partnering for the future

Without a doubt, Majid Al Futtaim’s most significant partner in its ‘smart journey’ moving into the future will be with Dubai itself.

In December, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Smart Dubai to help the emirate improve its data analytics capabilities. As part of the MoU, Majid Al Futtaim and Smart Dubai will collaborate in four areas: data enrichment, policy, education and innovative technology. Additionally, both organisations will explore new technologies such as blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT).

According to Dr. Aisha bint Butti bin Bishr, the director-general of the Smart Dubai Office, the agreement “provides support for the data sector, which constitutes the backbone of the smart city. It allows us to benefit from Majid Al Futtaim’s expertise in data management and analysis across several sectors, which supports Smart Dubai’s initiatives and projects to provide a secure ad happy life, as well as a bright future, for the Dubai community.”

Bejjani proudly points out that the agreement is the first-of-its kind between the Dubai government and a private company, a fact which he credits to Majid Al Futtaim’s work in this area over the last several years. “We’ve been working on this now very seriously, very diligently, for two and a half years. We’ve done a lot of work on infrastructure, and the MoU is basically the outcome of that.

“We’re not doing [collecting] data for the sake of data,” he is quick to add. “We need to believe in sharing our insights in order to enable our ecosystem. The more we actually improve our ecosystem and enrich it, and make sure that we have benefit from every part of the ecosystem, the better we all become.”

The latest City Centre mall in the UAE opened in Ras Al Khaimah in January

Wait for it...

So when will the consumer will begin experiencing Majid Al Futtaim’s transformation first-hand? Bejjani says that it’s going to happen in a matter of months, rather than years. “We don’t actually operate in terms of years, because the world is changing so fast,” he says.

When it comes to harnessing the power of data, Bejjani says he believes Majid Al Futtaim and the UAE are, without a doubt, leading by example. “It’s pushing the bar when guessing customer expectations. But you know what? That’s the right thing to do,” he says.

“I think that if we continue to walk the walk, very soon a lot of what’s being defined globally will be defined out of the UAE and Dubai in particular,” he adds of this rapid transformation. “We are putting our money where our mouth is. We are very serious about our customers, and we want to deliver an experience that makes them happy.”

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