Case Study: How early investments in digital technologies prepared aswaaq for the pandemic


February 4, 2021 | By Shruthi Nair

Emerging technologies and IT integration in businesses have been taking place for at least a decade now but the growth in the adoption has never been this accelerated. There were still many companies in the region that were still procrastinating about their digital transformation plans, but come Covid-19, there was no choice but to hail the digitization ride.

According to a new McKinsey Global Survey of executives, their companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years.

Digital technologies were not just required to keep businesses running but also to ensure the safety of their staff and customers. Consumer-facing applications such as grocery and food delivery services, business-to-business e-commerce applications, and videoconferencing software that seem to have penetrated the consumer, business, and not-for-profit worlds became the norm. Searches for terms such as “contactless” increased 7x between November and late April, while the stocks of technology companies aligned with new-found customer health and safety concerns have skyrocketed.

When Covid-19 hit, most businesses were unprepared. Only those who had built a strong digital foundation were able to pivot and address the new challenges, keep their staff employed and deliver vital services for the community. Retail chain aswaaq was one of those.

“The technological investments we put in place over the years paid off during the pandemic,” says Affan Al Khoori, Deputy CEO at aswaaq Group.

A clear vision, tech-enabled ecosystem, and driven human resources proved to key in aswaaq’s crisis journey showcasing resilience and agility.

Committed to community and innovation

“Innovation and Digital transformation” wasn’t a buzzword when aswaaq started its technology journey in 2007, or when they realigned the focus to sync with the UAE national innovation strategy in 2015.

“Having already invested in technology that supports business continuity was one of the game changers for us,” says Manoj Vijayan, Director Innovation & Technology at aswaaq Group.

“When the pandemic hit, our investments gave us a clear advantage. We were already using the LS Retail unified commerce platform, alongside modern collaboration technology currently in trend, as the backbone of our operations, and we could easily scale up and adapt with a minimal learning curve for our users, and zero impact on the business”, he added.

Since aswaaq has been supporting remote work since 2013, it could move its entire workforce to work from home within days when needed, as they already had all the practice and technology in place.

In April 2020, when consumers massively moved online, aswaaq already had the real-time, enterprise-wide visibility needed to support the new demands thanks to previous investments in e-commerce and unified commerce. The company quickly scaled up online operations, fulfilled all orders, maximized online availability, and even expanded its services to home delivery and phone orders.

Contactless technology is now a must-have. The company’s loyalty app has enabled customers to shop in-store fast and contactless, using their own mobile device since 2014, accelerating its development in 2016. “At the time, it was such a new concept that it was hard to get customers to use it,” said Al Khoori.

“The pandemic has been a wake-up call for many retailers. They now fully understand the value of investing in leading-edge technology,” says Waddah Laham, Vice President at software provider LS Retail. “Before Covid-19, we often had to convince businesses of the value of having a unified platform with functionality like e-commerce, contactless shopping, and data analytics. Today, everyone’s ready to follow the lead of innovators like aswaaq.”

Leading with dedication and teamwork

“The right technology is a significant advantage, but only if it’s in the hands of employees who care for one another and for the company’s mission,” he said.

When online orders surged, all aswaaq staff joined forces to ensure that customers would be served promptly and safely. Employees from the real estate branches and shared service functions volunteered to man the hotline for elderly customers, even doing the order picking and home delivery in person.

“We wouldn’t be here without our staff’s utter dedication,” says Al Khoori.

A focus on leadership, innovation, speed, and teamwork has proved to be a winning strategy. “Be ready for the worst, and prepare from today, so you won’t be vulnerable when the unexpected hits,” he said.

“Technology that keeps your business going through disruption should not be considered a ‘nice to have’–it’s a necessity.”

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