Customer experience, artificial intelligence and reinventing the mall were all on the first day’s agenda at the World Retail Congress.

Experiential retail

“Who remembers their first kiss?” asked Jo Malone, founder of the eponymous luxury fragrance brand and its new venture, Jo Loves.

In a session on the new era of experiential retailing at the World Retail Congress in Dubai, Malone likened the importance of a shopper’s first experience of a retail brand with their first kiss.

“A great customer experience should be the heartbeat of every retail brand,” she said. “Like your first kiss, they should never forget it. Consumers need to engage with a retailer in a way that makes their heart beat”.

“You don’t have to be the biggest brand with the biggest budget to create a great experience”

Jo Malone

She was talking about the role that customer experience has played in the launch of Jo Loves – in particular in Shanghai, where with a budget of just £250 she set up a pop-up stall based on a tapas style restaurant to let people sample her fragrances.

Another quirk of the brand is her ‘painting’ of fragrances on customers, rather than spraying them. Within an hour she drew a queue of 500 people.

Typically, said Malone, she generates a 92% conversion rate when shoppers are engaged in such a way.

“You don’t have to be the biggest brand with the biggest budget to create a great experience,” she said. “It’s about passion, resilience, creativity, and the ability to tell a story with authenticity”.

How robots will enhance customer service

And from one extreme to the other – from the personal and human interaction to the robotic and technologically advanced solution.

Ocado founder Tim Steiner discussed the grocer’s investment in artificial intelligence and the huge role it has to play in enhancing the customer experience whilst driving down costs.

Robotic fulfilment in Ocado’s new warehouse in Andover, Hants, he said, will reduce the picking time from two to four hours for a standard 50-item order, to under five minutes.

There will be 1,100 robots in its new warehouse moving at eight metres-per-second, and they will pass each other with the exacting precision of only a 5mm gap.

“It’s based on very advanced algorithms and automation,” said Steiner. “This is about investing in the future”.

Other developments will include the intriguingly titled ‘soft-hand manipulation’ to assist with even the most delicate of order pickings to avoid product damage.

“[Ocado] continually invests to offer an unparalleled customer service with small incremental changes”

But Steiner said that it’s not just about the big-thinking artificial intelligence investment, pointing out that with 950 software engineers Ocado is as much a tech company as a retailer.

He explained how it continually invests to offer an unparalleled customer service with small incremental changes – be it a personalised, simplified search for shoppers, or a personalised packing experience to accommodate their personal preferences for bag usage or grouping of products. “We have to continually invest to stay ahead,” he said.

Reinventing the mall in the Middle East

In the world of bricks-and-mortar, Middle Eastern malls famed for their scale and opulence are having to develop and adapt as much as any other area of retail. 

In a session entitled ‘Reinventing the Mall – a new destination for a new consumer’ Al Tayer Insignia chief executive Khalid Al Tayer discussed the challenges as the local market finally begins catch up with ‘digital commerce’. “The next five to 10 years will be transformative,” he said.

“94% of shoppers surveyed said the mall was still central to their leisure time in the UAE”

Nevertheless, 94% of shoppers surveyed said the mall was still central to their leisure time in the UAE. However keeping ahead of shoppers’ expectations will be critical with ecommerce’s increasing threat to footfall.

The usual rules apply – an increase in the food and beverage offer to around 20%, and an increase in ‘entertainment for all ages’. But it’s also about being bespoke, said Daniel Parry, managing director for commercial and general counsel of developer Gulf Related.

One such development has been the creation of a women’s-only Bloomingdale’s store in Kuwait.

The resounding message of the sessions on day one of WRC was that retail challenges and solutions are the same the world over.

But in an increasingly advanced technological world of robots and automation, treating every shopper like an individual – be it online or instore – remains as important as ever.