Reshaping retail-tainment in the Middle East and beyond

Alain Bejjani, CEO of conglomerate Majid Al Futtaim, shares his perspectives on retail’s future and on his own leadership journey.

In the summertime, temperatures in Dubai can exceed 40°C (104°F). No surprise, then, that people flock to the air-conditioned Mall of the Emirates to shop, dine, see movies, play arcade games, or . . . ski. Yes, this mall—located in the desert—houses Ski Dubai, the world’s largest indoor ski slope and snow park.

The Mall of the Emirates is owned and operated by Majid Al Futtaim Group, a conglomerate with a presence across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. The leading developer and operator of shopping malls in the region, Majid Al Futtaim also owns VOX Cinemas, the Middle East’s largest movie-theater chain; several leisure and entertainment centers; and the Carrefour franchise in 38 countries. Since opening its first mall in 1995, the Group has doubled its revenues every five years, reaching approximately $8.2 billion in 2016.

For the past two years, Majid Al Futtaim has been led by Alain Bejjani, a lawyer by training, with a career spanning more than ten years within the Group. Bejjani recently spoke with McKinsey’s Peter Breuer and Gemma D’Auria in Dubai. Excerpts of the conversation follow.

Alain Bejjani: The most exciting global trend affecting all of our businesses is the shift in consumer focus from product to experience. Majid Al Futtaim has long been a pioneer in customer experience—partly because it’s extremely hot in the Middle East during the summer months, and it’s not unusual for people to spend the whole day at the mall! But they don’t want to just shop all day long, so we have turned our malls into social hubs and true “retail-tainment” destinations that address our customers’ wants, in line with our vision of “creating great moments for everyone, every day.” As our Mall of the Emirates tagline testifies, “Shopping is just the beginning.” And we are reinventing our assets all the time. Our ThEATre by Rhodes, for example, is a partnership between our VOX Cinemas and a celebrity chef. We’ve married movie viewing with gourmet food to create a completely novel experience.

In line with this trend of valuing experience over product, customers are even starting to define luxury differently. It is about truly enjoying the “great moments,” the experience, irrespective of the price point. ThEATre by Rhodes isn’t an exorbitant expense—just a premium on a regular movie ticket—but people see it as a luxury experience, and they love it because it is unique. People don’t want to just pay for luxury; they want to live it.

Another trend we see is that more consumers want technology to be seamlessly embedded into their experience. This is particularly true in the Middle East, which has some of the fastest growth rates in smartphone adoption, Internet penetration, online shopping, and social-media usage in the world. So we are embedding a technology dimension into everything we do. We’ve integrated our IT platforms and created a central repository for our customer data. We’re using technology to take our offering to a new level, and analytics to learn more about ourselves, our people, and our customers and make decisions that help us create great moments for them. We see technology as the currency of the future. And we’re working on establishing an online presence for our brands that will be as prominent as our offline presence, in particular, for our grocery retail business.

Another big trend is that disruption is no longer coming merely from our traditional competition but often from outside the boundaries of our specific industries. We need to make sure we not only look at the experience and technology of today but also constantly imagine and stay ahead of customer wants for the technology-enabled experience of tomorrow. This is where learning from other industries is tremendously helpful. We are learning from the world’s leading technology companies—Google, Facebook, Amazon, as well as great start-ups that are applying new approaches to solve real challenges.




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