Data, robotics to drive post-Covid-19 recovery in GCC retail

To kickstart its recovery, retailers must now harness technology and data to improve shopping experiences

e-commerce. Image used for illustrative purpose.

e-commerce. Image used for illustrative purpose.


Digital transformation, data and robotics will drive the post-Covid-19 recovery of the Gulf’s retail sector, following a drastic shift towards online shopping following the global pandemic.

While online shopping has been considered slower to catch on in the Gulf region than other markets, there has been a surge since customers were confined to their homes during the lockdown measures.

Saudi Arabian retail has seen spikes in online purchasing since the coronavirus outbreak began, with the kingdom’s Bin Dawood Group reporting a 400 percent jump in app downloads, while online sales jumped 200 percent in just a few weeks, RetailME said.

A Visa CEMEA Impact Tracker showed that two-thirds of UAE consumers (68 percent) had purchased groceries online for the first time due to Covid-19 restrictions, and 70 percent made their first online purchase from a pharmacy.

To tempt customers back into bricks and mortar stores post-pandemic, shopping will need to be “experiential” retailers told a webinar organised by RetailME.

“Data will be the new soil – the new engine for growth in the retail sector,” said Piyush Kumar Chowhan, Group Chief Information Officer, Lulu Group International.

“Technology will drive digital initiatives. Good customer experience will come from an innovation mindset, driven using different technology tools. How can data be used as the new soil in the digital transformation agenda is the big question, and technology will facilitate the process.”

‘Right-sized’, not downsized

One impact that has already emerged for Gulf retail is a shrinking of the market as the economy contracts, and expatriates return to their home countries post job losses.

But Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer of Jacky’s Retail LLC and Jacky’s Business Solutions, referred to the market as being ‘right-sized’ rather than down-sized.

“A shrinkage now means changes now, but when things get better, we will surely rethink how we adapt to growth as we will make use of all available routes to market (online and physical) and maximising our returns on it instead of over-expanding. This market had a massive over-supply of everything which is now being corrected.

“Changes that were long due have and will get accelerated. Technology will enable changes, but we also have to rethink the fundamentals of doing business. Technology adaptation and deployment of robots could be a game-changer in retail business. We might see this happening soon.”

Change for the better

For Mark Thomson, Director, retail and hospitality, at retail solutions company Zebra Technologies, Covid-19 has been an ‘electric shock’ for retailers, who have faced their most severe impact since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but, it could bring about positive change in some areas.

He said: “Retailers have indeed faced different challenges during the pandemic but have found ways to adapt to the shifts caused by COVID-19. The smarter use of data and real-time analytics will play a leading role in optimising business processes and in delivering improved customer experiences.”

“But there is a positive amidst the challenges - Covid-19 might act as a catalyst for positive changes in retail,” he added.

For Chowhan, beyond the immediate issue of ensuring customers are convinced that the necessary hygiene measures are in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, getting them back to stores will be about create a frictionless, convenient and enjoyable experience.

“More than contactless, it will be frictionless. If we can give enough confidence to customers by maintaining the highest level of hygiene, they won’t be fearful. In the UAE, customer footfall has sprung back into our stores, and that will continue. The real challenge is to understand how we can move away from transactional engagement into experiential positioning by removing friction. In doing so, personalisation will become crucial, and convenience will be key.” 

Sustainability comes to the fore

Panjabi reminded participants that technology is not the only solution and other factors, such as a shift towards local production, had arisen in the wake of Covid-19: “Digital can’t fix a problem; it can be an enabler. People’s mindset shift will bring about the biggest changes, and sustainability will play a key role,” he said.

“Post-Covid, local manufacturing and production are being talked about much more vociferously. There will be a focus on producing locally. There will also be a drive towards personalisation using technology tools.”   

(Reporting by Imogen Lillywhite, editing by Seban Scaria)

#Retail #GCC #Technology #Business #Data #Shopping

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