Step into Majid Al Futtaim’s new Retail Business School and Fiona – a virtual assistant - welcomes you to the campus that aims to train nearly a quarter of Carrefour's staff in the UAE for the new digital age.
From there, you walk into a sleek space where 2,140 indoor plants line the walls to generate natural oxygen, while an undulating oak-panelled ceiling adds to the relaxing mood and a 104-year-old olive tree positioned in the centre of the room symbolises wisdom and knowledge.
Carrefour has committed to 29 hours of training per employee in 2019, up from 27.5 hours in 2018 – and much higher than the estimated 10 to 15 hours happening elsewhere in the country.
The campus – the only one of its kinds in the region - is more than a showpiece for paperless classrooms, living walls and virtual reality; the intention is to ensure its retail leaders are fully on board as the company goes through a digital innovation to better serve its customers, from same-day delivery for online grocery orders to promoting its loyalty programme to improve insights on consumer behaviour.
“The digital journey starts from the moment you enter the facility with anyone on the training course inputting their email to enter before they are greeted by Fiona. This is to encourage employees to think digitally from the moment they enter,” says Juma Bin Salmin, vice president of human capital at Carrefour UAE.
While Carrefour employs almost 10,500 staff, it is its 2,500 managers that will be the focus at the school.
With three out of four managers internally promoted to their position, Miguel Povedano, Carrefour’s chief operating officer, says it is important they keep learning to help drive the retailer’s cultural transformation to become an omnichannel company.
“One of the biggest challenges companies have today is a lack of talent, and recruiting the right people is complicated. So how do you transform the cultural mindset? When only 25 per cent of Carrefour’s new managers are new, fresh blood – this is why we are training.”
Which is why so much thought has gone into creating a space that can create “a beautiful mindset” that can then be delivered to the customers, says Mr Bin Salmin.
Carrefour may have 28 hypermarkets and 62 supermarkets spread across the Emirates but it not only competes against other supermarket chains but also e-commerce giants such as Amazon and Noon.
According to the Global Powers of Retailing 2019 report from consultancy Deloitte, with inflation accelerating in major markets and governments making shifts in monetary and fiscal policies, the slowing global economy will lead to slower consumer spending growth, higher consumer prices and disrupted global supply chains for retailers.
“The Middle East … continues to be an attractive destination for retailers. They are adapting to the rapidly changing consumer demand for luxury and premium items, and a more convenient, less time-consuming retail experience,” says Herve Ballantyne, partner and consumer and industrial products industry leader at Deloitte Middle East.
Which is why keeping customers happy to retain market share is key.
“No matter what your retail business is – it’s the interaction with the customer that is important,” says Mr Povedano. “In this new era of digitalisation and communication, the customer is not only after the best price but experiences as well."
This is why the retail school is located above one of Carrefour’s flagship stores in Dubai’s Ibn Battuta Mall. Managers attending the school will first absorb the curriculum – a learning model focused on stimulating the senses to improve knowledge retention – before they move down to the shop floor to apply their learning in practise. This means they learn how the butcher cuts his meat or how the baker achieves the same rise on the bread across the entire Carrefour chain. A chef at the retail school also produces signature dishes that may later be replicated in the stores.
But while igniting the senses is important, so is making sure its managers are primed to drive through the digital innovation strategy.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, MAF's chief executive Alain Bejjani stated the importance for every business to give the customers what they want.
“We also have to be more effective and efficient in order for us to be more relevant,” he added.
It was there MAF announced its partnered with the Los Angeles firm of music artist will.i.am, to deploy its AI-powered conversational and contextual voice assistant technology, called Omega, at its retail outlets, starting with Dubai.
“In the future you will be able to order online with your voice,” says Mr Povedano, adding that AI should be able to solve about 90 per cent of the frequently asked questions customers have.
According to a recent report from global technology company Avaya Holdings and market research firm Davies Hickman Partners, UAE consumers want the organisations they buy from to deploy new technologies, such as voice biometrics and AI to improve convenience and security.
Over 60 per cent said they’d like to use a smart speaker such as an Amazon Echo to access customer service, while 78 per cent would like to use voice biometrics to bypass identification and verification questions.
Carrefour's digital push last year included launching a free express service guaranteeing any online order in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Sharjah– including a basket of goods containing fresh products – would be delivered in less than an hour from the nearest outlet.
“Not even Noon or Amazon have that,” says Mr Povedano. “When we started that service in May or June we were doing three or four orders per day. Now are doing more than 700 orders a day.”
The executive says the company's ambition is to have 15 to 16 per cent of its total sales ordered digitally in the future.
Other innovations include Carrefour’s Scan&Go, launched towards the end of last year, where customers can use a scanning device to calculate their own bill as they shop.
Currently available in three stores - City Centre Mirdif, City Centre Deira and Mall of the Emirates – the retailer will roll out the service to more outlets this year.
“Around 6 per cent of transactions in the stores where we offer Scan&Go are now completed via this service. This is double the industry average elsewhere in the world,” says Mr Povedano, adding that it saves customers five minutes (or more at peak times) per shopping trip as they do not need to queue at the checkout.
By the end of this year, customers will be able to access the same service via a mobile app linked to the company’s MyClub loyalty programme.
MyClub has over a million active customers, representing about 80 per cent turnover for its UAE stores, says Mr Povedano.
While collecting data from the loyalty programme has already allowed Carrefour to offer discounts and promotions to customers based on their nationality, he adds, the 200 engineers “developing algorithms to make your spending easier in Carrefour” will soon ensure that “customers receive offers exclusively geared towards their individual shopping preferences and needs”.
Speeding up service is also something the company is working hard to improve on, says Mr Povedano. He says it used to take customers 20 minute to purchase an electronics product in store.
“Today it is less than five minutes. When we started to analyse it, we put in new ways of working," he adds.
The company has also introduced convenience in a very un-digital way - a floating supermarket, anchored off Dubai's coastline that allows yacht crews, jet-skiers and speed boat passengers to able to shop from the store.
According to the Avaya report, 81 per cent of those surveyed said that convenience is more important than price, compared to 63 per cent of consumers globally.
“If we look at the number of fast food and supermarket delivery services that have sprung up in the UAE in recent years, it is clear that this is the trend,” says Fadi Hani, vice president – Middle East, Africa and Turkey at Avaya. “After all, these services levy a premium on convenience and yet continue to steadily grow their customer base.”
However, price is still important. Mr Povedano says the company has a software tool to monitor its competitors' prices in real time, adding that Carrefour always aims to be cheaper than its competitors.
“We can do this because we are a lean, agile business with huge purchasing power, so we can use the economies of scale that we gain by being able to purchase at such high volumes to pass on the savings to our customers,” he adds.