UAE retailers go big with sushi, pizza and robots – Gulf News

Supermarkets chains and brands are talking up customer ‘experience’ in a quest to survive
Dubai: UAE retailers are giving a whole new meaning to customer experience. If that means having a chef prepare a meat cut while you are out picking up grocery at the supermarket, then that’s how it is going to be.
At LuLu’s outlet at the recently opened Festival Plaza mall in Jebel Ali, there’s sushi and gourmet burgers on the menu. And even a cafe-cum-dining area right at the entrance to the hypermarket. “It’s about bring the fruit, vegetable and hot food section to the front of the store from the traditional “behind the store” areas,” said V. Nandakumar, Chief Communications Officer at LuLu.
“Hypermarkets were predominantly planned in a certain format aimed at storing and displaying maximum number of products. But with changing lifestyles and consumption habits, we have to keep re-investing in our layouts and offerings.”
Welcome then into the world of “experiential shopping”. Where retailers are promising customers something far more than a chance to pick up goods. In other words, remove boring from the staid world of brick-and-mortar shopping. And at a time when online is winning over more shoppers, the need to do something different becomes all the more intense.
So, create experiences and something shoppers would never expect in the normal course. Make those experiences compelling enough to get shoppers to want more. “The initial response from shoppers has been tremendous and we expect this to help us get more frequent “shopper return.”
For LuLu, the Festival Plaza location was the ideal testing lab for the new concept. The location provides for a wider shopper demographic mix than is the case at other locations operated by the retailer; it’s also a younger profile than is the average.
Would that mean LuLu would have coffee-and-dining at all its stores, existing and future? “These new experiential features will be rolled at all our future stores,” said Nandakumar. “While the exact products mix might see some changes in different locations, the shopping experience will be the same – world-class.”
International retailers have always played around with mixing food with shopping – it continues to be a big hit for Ikea and Marks & Spencer. The intention is the same – get shoppers to remain in-store as long as possible. The longer they do, the more likely they are to spend.
A US brand is also taking the same experiential step in Dubai – b8ta has tied up with Chalhoub Group to open a 1,500 square feet outlet at The Dubai Mall. So far, so traditional.
But what the store offers different is an opportunity for brands – typically those that are yet to find a popular following for now – to rent space within it and encourage shoppers to come in and browse. Much like how shoppers would search out a product online.
The only difference is that this time the “discovery” is happening in-store – “The idea is to bring back the excitement to shopping from discovering a new product,” said Phillip Raub, President, b8ta. “What we also provide is the ability to demonstrate the product with trained staff.”
Think of the b8ta concept as a WeWork for brands – they lease spaces in-store for between three months to a year. The intention is to build up an identity for these brands rather than focus exclusively on the selling part.
Touch and feel – that’s where the experiential part comes in.
“We charge only a flat fee for the space and don’t take a margin on any goods sold,” said Raub, who is a co-founder of the concept and has had stints at Google and Nest. The retailer operates 23 locations in the US since the first one in 2015, and the Dubai move represents the first phase of seeking an international exposure.
“It’s a concept that can play out globally,” said Raub.
Not that all the excitement of new things is limited to the offline space. The Majid Al Futtaim group on Tuesday confirmed a partnership with US-based Takeoff for “e-grocery automation solutions”. The plan is to use the tech with Carrefour’s online orders in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
This will lead to small warehouses being set up at select Carrefour stores next year, and will process the online orders. This tech will have robots replace the manual picking method currently in use.
The robots can fulfil an order in less than five minutes for pick-up or delivery – that’s according to a statement issued by the company.
Max Pedro, President of Takeoff, said: “We are facing a massive shift in the e-grocery industry, and the scales have already begun tipping.”
According to one long-time retail industry insider in Dubai, brick-and-mortar has no option but to double down on offering experiences along with the merchandise. “With the level of migration to online, retailers need to keep offering something new,” he said. “There’s no other way to survive.”
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