Majid Al Futtaim Retail's online orders increased threefold year on year in March as the coronavirus outbreak limited people's movement.
The company was forced to move staff from other departments to meet rising demand, chief executive Hani Weiss told The National.
"As Covid-19 spreads around the world and impacts peoples' lives and businesses … we saw a surge in online traffic as well as in the footfall coming to our physical Carrefour stores," Mr Weiss said.
Majid Al Futtaim Retail holds the exclusive franchise rights to operate Carrefour in more than 31 countries across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
To fulfil the surge in demand, 1,015 leisure, entertainment and cinema employees in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon received training that enabled them join the Carrefour business.
They were trained to assist with the online order fulfilment process that includes distribution, packaging and stock replenishment across Carrefour's supermarkets and hypermarkets.
Sports equipment, sportswear, freezers, masks, gloves and cleaning and hygiene products were some of the items in high demand.
“We will continue this reskilling and redeployment drive. Very soon, an additional 300 staff in Saudi Arabia will be joining the Carrefour business,” Mr Weiss said.
Besides the increase in online orders, the company also witnessed a 59 per cent annual jump in new online customers in March.
Majid Al Futtaim Retail is also looking to absorb staff from other e-commerce companies that are struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are open to integrating other smaller companies that are running out of resources. Their staff is already trained and can contribute in our business right from the first day,” Mr Weiss said.
To adapt to changing market conditions and minimise disruption, Majid Al Futtaim Retail converted more than 40 stores in Jordan, where shops are not allowed to open due to an ongoing curfew, into fulfilment centres.
It plans to do the same in other countries, Mr Weiss said.
The company created small call centres and trained its staff in Jordan to tend to calls, as well as package and deliver the orders in a hygienic manner.
It also equipped them with other skills relating to online transactions.
Mr Weiss said the company is ready to replicate its mode of operations in other markets, especially in the UAE, if the need arises.
"We are studying this model city by city, on how we can convert part of our physical store into a dark store or a fulfilment centre. Accordingly, we are training our people and making sure that we are ready for the next phase."
Majid Al Futtaim Retail established six new fulfilment centres in the region over the past month to meet the growing online demand.
The company expects its non-food businesses – such as textiles and household goods – to sustain a “huge impact” because of the pandemic.
“We are seeing that non-food business [segment] is suffering big time … people are not buying non-essential products such as clothing, textile and light household products,” Mr Weiss said.
“However, at this moment, it is difficult to estimate the exact impact and for how long this trend will continue.”
To minimise the human contact and expedite the process of order completion, the company will launch a new "click-and-collect" service in the coming days.
"As shopping malls are not operating, we are planning to leverage the available car parking area by converting [them] into fulfilment centre[s] for customers. Currently, it is in the pilot stage and we are testing it at few locations in Dubai," Mr Weiss said.
Customers can choose a delivery spot in the parking area and wait in their car for Carrefour staff to bring their order, he said.