UAE retailer MAF trawls Silicon Valley for data specialists

Majid Al Futtaim owns and operates 21 shopping malls in the region and has exclusive rights to the Carrefour franchise in 38 markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

:: Dubai’s Majid Al Futtaim, the Middle East operator of French retailer Carrefour SA, is hiring 200 people as it rolls out an ambitious strategy to expand its digital and e-commerce operations, its chief executive told Reuters.

Majid Al Futtaim, which in June acquired the franchise owner of Geant supermarkets in the Gulf, is bringing data scientists and engineers from Silicon Valley to make best use of its data, CEO Alain Bejjani said in a telephone interview.

The business has started hiring people who have worked for Yahoo, Facebook Inc and Google (part of Alphabet Inc ) to staff the effort, Bejjani said, and has launched a school of data and analytics that will enable everyone, from supermarket cashiers to the CEO himself, to learn to code and understand algorithms.

Dubai’s retail sector has been slow to embrace data science compared with regional counterparts, but the recent acquisition of Dubai online retailer by Inc may push businesses to think about how to expand online.

“Technology is the currency of the future,” Bejjani said. “People need to understand why data is important and basically how can data help us … do better business.”

Dubai-based data analytics firm Pegasus, part of cyber security company DarkMatter, said it was seeing a rise in interest from regional firms looking to understand consumer information.

Competitive edge

“It’s becoming strategic, especially in retail, where a competitive edge is hard to define,” Peng Xiao, CEO of Pegasus, said. “If you look at companies like Alibaba and Amazon, a key reason for their success is their ability to analyze the data of customers, products and logistical supply chains.”

The strategy is already bearing fruit for Majid Al Futtaim, which has 7.5 million uniquely identified customers in the United Arab Emirates alone.

In its Carrefour stores it had crunched data relating to its biscuit assortments. “We discovered a number of counterintuitive insights, that when we implemented them they had a very big impact on productivity,” Bejjani said.

“We even discovered that there was one specific biscuit brand that actually had a big impact of people walking out of the store if they don’t find (that brand).”

Yet with companies ramping up the amount of data they collect there could be concerns about privacy.

“In the United Arab Emirates, the government leadership is beefing up its data governance program, but it’s not quite there yet,” Peng Xiao said. “It’s very important to protect the data and ensure individual privacy is protected. Companies will have to put proper data handling policies in place too, to ensure anonymity.”

Majid Al Futtaim is owner and operator of 21 shopping malls in the region and has exclusive rights to the Carrefour franchise in 38 markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, according to its website.

The company plans to take Carrefour in the United Arab Emirates online by mid 2018, and across its other territories in the next 24 months, Bejjani said.

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