MA­JID AL FUTTAIM IN­VESTS HEAV­ILY IN AI TO DRIVE THE FU­TURE OF RE­TAIL GROWTH

▶ ‘Hun­dreds of mil­lions’ spent – in­clud­ing with will.i.am’s tech com­pany – to tap into the eco­nomic value of the con­glom­er­ate’s vast pool of cus­tomer data

The National - News - - BUSINESS - KELSEY WARNER Riyadh

Real es­tate and re­tail con­glom­er­ate Ma­jid Al Futtaim has in­vested “hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars” in four years to build its ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence-driven con­sumer sales strat­egy.

It is also us­ing rap­per and mu­sic pro­ducer will.i.am’s tech com­pany i.am+ for parts of its new app, its chief ex­ec­u­tive said at the Fu­ture In­vest­ment Ini­tia­tive in Riyadh.

De­spite re­ports the busi­ness deal be­tween Ma­jid Al Futtaim and i.am+ had soured, Alain Be­j­jani said the Omega prod­uct, a voice as­sis­tant sim­i­lar to Ap­ple’s Siri built by i.am+, was in­te­grated in the com­pany’s new app launched ear­lier this month.

In a test by The Na­tional, the voice as­sis­tant is in­con­sis­tent in qual­ity and ac­cu­racy, and Mr Be­j­jani ac­knowl­edged that the com­pany is look­ing ways to im­prove the app’s voice func­tion, ei­ther through i.am+ or other ven­dors.

The owner and op­er­a­tor of Car­refour su­per­mar­kets, Vox Cin­e­mas and shop­ping malls across the Mid­dle East, Africa and East­ern Europe be­gan its AI strat­egy in 2016, ul­ti­mately build­ing a vast data pool from more than 400 sources such as its cin­e­mas, gro­cery stores and re­tail ten­ants, pulled from 16 coun­tries and 13 mil­lion cus­tomers.

Four years later, this data ob­ses­sion “is our new nor­mal and we will never stop”, Mr Be­j­jani said. “To­day, a lot of [the data] is the back­bone of our in­fra­struc­ture.”

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by con­sul­tancy Strat­egy&, mov­ing to­wards data-driven tech­nolo­gies such as AI in­creases the eco­nomic value of data be­cause com­pa­nies and govern­ments can get more in­sight from it.

But GCC coun­tries are fall­ing be­hind. The GCC data econ­omy is worth $4.7 bil­lion (Dh17.6bn or around 0.3 per cent of re­gional gross do­mes­tic prod­uct), “a smaller pro­por­tion than in the EU, where it is es­ti­mated at 1.9 per cent of GDP”.

This lag is be­cause there is a “lack of aware­ness of the value of their data … or data’s com­mer­cial po­ten­tial”.

Not so for Ma­jid Al Futtaim, which is us­ing data to try to spur a come­back for re­tail, which has been slug­gish since the ad­vent of on­line shop­ping.

Mr Be­j­jani seems to lament the loss of “mom and pop” stores, where the shop own­ers knew their cus­tomers’ names and pref­er­ences.

Con­sumerism and mass pro­duc­tion ru­ined re­tail, Mr Be­j­jani said. But the amount of data gleaned from cus­tomers’ on­line and in-store or in-the­atre habits is help­ing MAF “move to some­thing more em­pir­i­cal, more data-driven … to de­light cus­tomers with ex­pe­ri­ences we can of­fer”.

Ma­jid Al Futtaim has found that “peo­ple are will­ing to in­vest more on ex­pe­ri­en­tial re­tail”.

This has trans­lated into Car­refour sell­ing gro­ceries on­line while also build­ing more live cook­ing sta­tions and of­fer­ing bar­rels of spices and abun­dant dis­plays of fish to evoke an old­school mar­ket in its stores. On its app, free­bies such as spa or gym ac­cess, desserts at its restau­rants or a skin anal­y­sis at its Der­ma­log­ica stores aim to pull cus­tomers into MAF’s malls.

Ma­jid Al Futtaim’s Vox Cin­e­mas uses ma­chine learn­ing to per­son­alise movie rec­om­men­da­tions on its web­site and app, re­sult­ing in as much as 30 per cent more ticket sales sold on­line, ac­cord­ing to a case study by Strat­egy&.

The com­pany also shares anonymised data with Smart Dubai, the govern­ment en­tity tasked with turn­ing Dubai into a smart city, to col­lab­o­rate on an­a­lyt­ics projects to bet­ter un­der­stand trends af­fect­ing the UAE, ac­cord­ing to the same re­port.

To im­prove the per­for­mance of its malls, data is shared with MAF’s mall ten­ants through an on­line an­a­lyt­ics por­tal so re­tail chains such as Lu­l­ule­mon, Crate&Bar­rel and Sa­coor can bet­ter mar­ket to cus­tomers.

“To­mor­row is not go­ing to be like yes­ter­day. To­mor­row is go­ing to be more hu­man, smarter and pur­pose­ful and all of this can hap­pen with bet­ter tech­nol­ogy and in­te­gra­tion with AI to trans­form the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence,” Mr Be­j­jani said.

Ma­jid Al Futtaim Group swung to a net loss dur­ing the first half of 2019 as it suf­fered a Dh860 mil­lion write-down on the value of its land and prop­erty port­fo­lio. But Mr Be­j­jani, on the eve of open­ing the largest cin­ema in Saudi Ara­bia, sounded op­ti­mistic.

Asked if the com­pany would be prof­itable by year-end he replied: “Of course”.

Chris Whi­teoak / The Na­tional

Alain Be­j­jani, MAF CEO, and will.i.am at the launch of the Omega plat­form in Dubai this year

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