We all remember shopping … in shops, during our younger days. It was a day out. Your parents would bundle you into the car, visit showroom after showroom, asking question after question about that new TV they had their eye on. It was laborious. It was also an era where the advantage lay very much with the retailer. Information about competing stores and competing products was hidden behind an impenetrable fog of marketing. Then came the Internet.
Today, retailers must appease; consumer ignorance and any scope for obfuscation are luxuries long since extinct. Digital natives rarely come to you; and when they do, there is nothing you can tell them about the product they seek. All you can do is add value and enhance their buying experience. That is retailing in the digital age.
AI is here to help. In the Arab Gulf, a region renowned for technological ambition, AI chatbots serve customers and empower their human colleagues by reducing workloads. Manufacturing firms integrate Internet of Things sensors with backend analytics engines to deliver predictive maintenance and servitisation business models. Petrochemical companies explore more effectively and drill more efficiently, through the digital oilfield. And retail businesses build deep, 360-degree views of customers on intelligent commerce platforms that allow personalised experiences and laser-focused marketing.
GCC retailers can benefit from AI in the back office. Governments across the Gulf have initiated economic vision programmes designed to boost job creation and accelerate GDP growth. Younger, affluent consumers who have grown up with the Internet need a subtler approach when converting them from leads to customers. With an increasing amount of sales conducted online, it is alarmingly easy for millennials to switch their attention to a competitor.
Forget discounts, vouchers and special deals; study after study shows that building brand loyalty among millennials requires delivery of a personalised experience that surpasses expectations first time, and every time thereafter. In the age of social media, every customer that is treated like this has the potential to become a brand ambassador.
Data lakes residing within intelligent, cloud-based commerce platforms can use AI and machine learning to optimise inventory maintenance specific to location and season, allowing the instore-pickup and same-day-delivery options that are now becoming the norm.
Such innovation is happening right now. A recent Microsoft poll of 1,300 Middle East-based IT decision-makers revealed that around 39% of the region’s organisations have already adopted some sort of AI, and more than one third (37%) are planning AI integration in 2019.
Companies across the Middle East are becoming more aggressive when it comes to investment in AI, with 72% planning a spend this year, and many previous adopters looking at further investments. Around one in three (34%) plan a spend of greater than 5% of their budget on AI, and 9% are setting aside more than 10%.
One of these innovators is Dubai’s Majid Al Futtaim, a lifestyle conglomerate that operates a range of well-known brands, including Mall of the Emirates, VOX Cinemas and Ski Dubai.
In recent years the company has been following a bold digital transformation programme to reshape customer experiences, improve efficiency and create a modern workplace. Majid Al Futtaim leveraged its more than half a billion annual customer interactions to build powerful Microsoft Azure-based AI models that help sales teams to predict customer needs ahead of time, personalise experiences and develop new products.
Consumers in omni-channel marketplaces are spoilt for choice. Retailers no longer face competition just from their own traditional rivals, but also from manufacturers and ecommerce companies of various scales. You can get it right as many times as you can count. But get it wrong once, and you can wave goodbye to that customer.
AI and machine learning allow your commerce platform to get better over time at predicting your customers’ and market’s behaviours, leading to better-informed decisions. Pricing, promotions and markdowns will then be automatically aligned with those of your competitors and with customer demand, without unnecessary gouging of the bottom line.
The Arab Gulf region is awash with fresh players in the retail space, many of them founded by millennials who understand exactly the kind of experiences required by their peers. To capitalise on the growing number of affluent consumers, regional retailers must craft a digital strategy that puts business intelligence and AI front and centre, or risk being swept aside by their technology-savvy competitors.
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