‘Digital disruption to transform retailers into tech companies’, say experts at the 9th Middle East Retail Forum

November 26, 2020 | By Shruthi Nair

While the whole world is suffering from the COVID-19 fall-out, the technology companies are flourishing and they are also disrupting the US$25 trillion global retail industry by transforming them to become tech-driven e-tailers delivering consumer goods door-to-door, experts at the 9th Middle East Retail Forum that took place at the Conrad Dubai Hotel on November 25, 2020, told more than 250 delegates while thousands of others viewed the live broadcast of the full-day proceedings.

COVID-19 is changing the global economy forever. While vaccines might bring back normalcy in life, the retail sector might not be the same again, due to the technology-led disruption where data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, perceptive analytics, changing consumer behaviour will reshape the retail industry landscape to strengthen customer experience.

“The year 2020 has been a roller coaster year full of new learnings, quick pivoting and unprecedented challenges, as the pandemic has created a new set of rules for the survival and success of retail industry,” Renuka Jagtiani, Chairwoman and CEO of Landmark Group, told the delegates.

“But we as a team take COVID-19 as an opportunity to prove ourselves in tough times. It is only possible if we do proper teamwork, as the customer expectations have been changed, and the way we have to approach them should be far more creative and personalised so that we can easily develop the trust and interest in our customer.”

The GCC’s e-commerce sector is expected to more than double to $50 billion in the next five years, up from $24 billion this year, as pandemic-related movement restrictions lead to a shift in shopping habits in the region, according to a new report by global consultancy firm Kearney.

Amazon, a relatively new player in the region, saw its sales in the GCC grow by 26 per cent to $76 billion (Dh278.92 billion) in the first quarter of 2020.

Patrick Chalhoub, CEO Chalhoub Group, said, “As the term “new” gives way to “next” normal, the very definition of normalcy has changed. It has changed as retailers are rewiring business models, rethinking revenue centres and readjusting plans to adopt in a changed business environment. I hope the industry will soon get normal.”

The mobile phone industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has largely risen to the challenge of sustaining social and economic activities in the region during the pandemic, despite the unprecedented growth in data traffic. According to GSMA, by the end of 2020, nearly 280 million people in the region (45% of the population) will be connected to mobile internet. However, COVID-19 has highlighted the impact of the digital divide for the nearly 350 million people in the region still unable to connect to mobile internet.

GSMA expects US$70 billion to be spent on mobile telephony in the MENA region between 2019 and 2025, which will spearhead the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and the 4th Industrial Revolution – which will eventually change the retail industry – among all other economic sectors.

Hozefa Saylawala, Director of Sales at Zebra Technologies, said, “COVID-19 has changed the retail industry forever and in a way it has created history for the retail industry. The year 2020 will go down in history for transforming and digitising the global retail industry, among other things. Retailers have started to change and are witnessing the evolution of a new retail experience where flawless and seamless customer experience will determine their success.”

The year 2020 will go down in history as the most remarkable year in the history of the retail industry due to the transformation and the opportunities it brings.

Justina Eitzinger, Chief Operating Officer of Images Group Middle East, organiser of the Middle East Retail Forum and RetailME Awards, said, “The 9th Middle East Retail Forum, the only such industry conference in the Middle East, takes place at an unprecedented time, when we are witnessing the biggest transformation in this industry taking place at such a fast pace like no other!

“The success of retailers will rely on technology adaptation, embedding data analytics, artificial intelligence and analysing consumer behaviour. Retailers will have to analyse the consumer behaviour through data analytics that will tell them what type of food to store, what brands customer prefers and the preferred price point – in order to remain ahead of the competition.

“These interesting insights make the Middle East Retail Forum more significant to educate and enlighten the industry stakeholders and help them to make informed decisions.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the retail sector and transformed consumers as it is rapidly changing the US$25 trillion global retail landscape, so much that the global e-commerce sales are set to grow from US$4.13 trillion in 2020 to US$4.8 trillion in 2021.

Majed M. Al Tahan, Founder and CEO, AYM and Co-founder and Managing Director, Danube Online, said, “The year 2020 will be remembered as a very special year for all of us for a number of reasons. First, it was a year full of challenges and it pushed all of us to the edge. However, it has forced consumers to shop online and that helped our online grocery business to flourish.

“Secondly, the year taught us many important lessons – how to adopt technology – to change the industry, as consumers have also begun to change due to the COVID-19 social distancing and health risks. As a retailer, we learned that the consumers are looking at three important things – speed, reliability and affordability – that will determine who remains ahead of the curve in future.”

However,COVID-19 has also helped the industry realise some fundamental facts.

Neelam Keswani, Director, Glamazle, said, “Following the COVID-19 pandemic, I realised that profit is not the most important thing in business, it’s people. Retaining human talents and happy and healthy people are more important than money!

“I have also realised that I do not need an office to run a business. All my colleagues are working from home and their productivity level either remained same or increased. But most importantly, their happiness level increased as they remained close to the families.”

Running concurrently at the same venue, the 10th RetailME Awards, honoured the region’s best performing retailers across 16 categories. These are some of the first such physical events taking place in the UAE after the COVID-19 pandemic stopped events since March this year.

Aptly titled The Masterplan of Retail Transformation, the Middle East Retail Forum hosted more than 250 delegates – restricted to 40 percent of the ballroom capacity – to ensure social distancing. This was the first such event to take place maintaining social distance protocol and all health and safety regulations stipulated by the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), reflecting the organiser’s strong determination to defy the odds. This also reflects the resilience of the region’s retail sector that has been dominating the economic landscape of the Middle East.

The 9th Middle East Retail Forum hosted a number of keynote speakers, presentations and five panel discussions in which 35+ speakers shared their insights on the changing retail landscape.

Key industry officials including Renuka Jagtiani, Chairwoman and CEO of Landmark Group, Patrick Chalhoub, CEO of Chalhoub Group; Ashish Panjabi, COO of Jacky’s Group of Companies and Jacky’s Retail LLC; Piyush Kumar Chowhan, Group CIO of Lulu Group International; Hisham Al Amoudi, Group CEO of Kamal Osman Jamjoom Group; Hozefa Saylawala, Director of Sales at Zebra Technologies; Mark Tesseyman, CEO of LIWA Trading Enterprises; Marwan Moukarzel, CEO of Fawaz Alhokair Fashion Retail; Tapan Vaidya, CEO of PJP Investments Group; Ryan den Rooijen, Group Head of Data and Analytics of Chalhoub Group joined Amitabh Taneja, Chairman of Images Group and Justina Eitzinger, COO, Images Group Middle East at the inaugural sessions.

The morning sessions – Tech-ing it Forward and Purpose-fitted Digital Transformation – saw retail leaders share inside stories of how they rejigged operations through enhanced digitalisation initiatives. The sessions pointed towards technology being ‘the’ enabler for retail transformation.

In the afternoon session, Cameron Mitchell, CEO, Majid Al Futtaim Leisure and Entertainment and Cinemas joined Halima Jumani, Director, Kibsons; Ian Ohan, Founder, KRUSH Brands; Isobel Abulhoul, Co-founder, Magrudy’s; Kiran Karanki, CEO, Semnox Solutions; and Raed Hafez, CEO, elGrocer at a panel discussion on Engagement and Loyalty: How Data and Service Upped the Ante.

E-commerce has been one of the main focus areas within the retail industry in 2020. The session titled Growing in Power: The E-commerce Surge saw experts Heba Al Fazari, Founder, Coveti; Majed M. Al Tahan, Founder and CEO, AYM and Co-founder and Managing Director, Danube Online; Neelam Keswani, Director, Glamazle; and Jeremy Denisty, Customer Director – Operational Lead MENA, Scopernia discuss the future of online retail.




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