The Middle East consumer’s appetite for luxury has grown insatiable, at best gluttonous, so much so that online luxury malls, open 24/7, are now an emerging powerhouse. Ounass, “The Definitive Home of Luxury” from retail giant Al Tayer Group promises free 2-hour delivery within Dubai, while The Modist, “The First Ever Luxury Modest Fashion Destination” launched from a formidable start-up promises a platform that includes a personal shopping and styling team, 24/7 customer concierge service, and same-day delivery in the Middle East. Both are a direct response to Net-A-Porter’s success in a region which now represents an average order value 50% higher than the rest of the world. But digital retail is only half the luxury equation in the Middle East. Tangible experiences – in the form of brick and mortar stores clobbered up in “luxury wings” of prominent malls are now co-existing with pop-ups the magnitude, detail, and scale of actual retail stores. “Tan-gital” is the tight path between exclusive, physical on-ground experiences and the trend of forming luxury malls online. A trend with a win-win situation?

Why is e-commerce always reported as taking away from bricks and mortar sales? Is this really the competition? Shouldn’t all brands be embracing both aspects to deliver a cohesive journey? Shopping malls are as popular as ever, however, our purchasing habits have evolved. The problem is mall and retail experiences are stubbornly antiquated.

Our shopping experience typically begins in the carpark and yet these are a barren wasteland when it comes to delivering a positive sense of arrival. Then what about way-finding inside the malls? There has been some improvement in recent years, and the Dubai Mall App is a leader in this area, however the ongoing prevalence of traditional static grid-style location maps and the lack of smart apps that can identify your location while feeding you relevant brand information means the experience in most malls continues to be underwhelming and disconnected. Then once you enter the retail store, and if you are time challenged and shop for clothes like me by pointing at a mannequin and telling the sales assistant that’s what you want, then you are typically limited to the 5 or 6 static mannequins that are on display, despite the myriad of combinations created by that brand’s designers and displayed on their online site.

However, change is coming. Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods for $13.7B suggests an overhaul of the retail experience is coming and could see an integration of their payless Amazon Fresh Pickup concept. Imagine the world without the horrible experience of queuing at the supermarket check-out…it’s almost too good to be true!

When I meet with a retail brand, the first thing I ask them is how they believe they are offering a genuinely different experience in their space. Often their positioning is very good online, but it is somewhat lacking in the physical space making it difficult to see what attributes will connect customers emotionally to the brand. Furthermore, if digital connectivity does not continue into the physical space then crucial data on the purchasing habits is lost.

Without the appearance of an ‘always on’ experience in the retail space, then the message is that the retail environment is always one step behind the online offering. To retain a top-of-mind position then brands need an integrated programme of in-store digital interaction, online activities, in-store events and co-branded experiences that reiterate how the brand is an integral part of our life.

This article was first published by People Retail magazine.

Hear me out before you turn that page, because chances are, Digital Retail may not be what what you think it is. It certainly goes beyond simply replacing a point of sale poster with a digital screen, and most definitely, it transcends the host of technologies that actually enable it. Why? Because digital retail is still “retail” at the end of the day, and the retail floor is still a retail floor – a tangible physical space for actual customer interaction.

Digital Retail is all about enhanced customer experiences on the shop floor. It can take the form of an ever so popular virtual reality experience, it can be served along the lines of gamification, it can be an online shopping experience inside an actual retail shop, or literally, a walk-in online store. Let’s look each of these possibilities in detail.

Virtual, Augmented, or Mixed Reality is the hottest tool around that can be used to showcase future collections. In store, it can be used for augmented fittings – to show color palettes, varying textures, and even to simulate different lighting situations to judge your retail picks outdoors in broad daylight or indoors with party lights.

A “Harmony of Experiences” can now be offered to discerning customers via a concept called the WeShop*, an intelligent sales space linking the virtual and the real world of Point of Sale. Customers in store can experience tailored POS services, set up as integrated digital eco-systems, including the use of beacon technology to enable personalised services and RFID tag product recognition in conjunction with interactive mirror displays, all connected to devices set up with access to digital platforms to enable a seamless path to purchase.

Let’s break that down for our customer, Ahmed. Ahmed walks past one of his favorite shops, and immediately, the digital shop window speaks directly to him, showing him the latest collection in and out of store. A navigation system takes him directly to the desired product display, and a tablet beside it shows him other colors and styles. The mirror in the fitting room remembers what he has previously bought, suggests similar styles, and on request, displays various combinations while a personal fashion consultant recommends suitable accessories. If his desired style is no longer in stock, the customer service counter knows where to find it, and suggests delivering the goods directly to Ahmed’s home. Via a Mobile Payment system, such as Google Wallet, Samsung Pay, or Apple Pay, Ahmed’s transaction becomes seamless, cashless, and conveniently connected to his loyalty benefits.

Gamification can be a direct path to loyalty. Using elements of play and popular game mechanics such as points, badges, rewards, ranks, competitions, and other incentives in nontraditional contexts, it is a subtle but fun way to get consumers engaged the same way they devoured the likes of Candy Crush and Pokemon Go. If done right, it can lead to countless upsell and cross sell opportunities. Gamification in retail comes from a simplistic insight that believes even the smallest of incentives can enable people to take an extra effort to do something they would have otherwise refused. Think Nike+Fuel and how your sweat can be used to achieve levels and gain trophies and badges you can flaunt on social.

On a shop floor, the idea of gamification can be extended to a seemingly unlikely industry: banking and finance. WeFinance* uses Simplication and Gamification to transform traditional branch offices into modern point of sale areas. Simplifcation comes in using digital screens to make an intangible financial product “touchable,” allowing customers to explore financial options and packages at the touch of a finger in privacy and at their own convenience, with or without a financial consultant. Once needed, a customer can opt for either a virtual or a personal consultation in the privacy of say, their personal retail floor pods. The pods can then double as a lounge offering a discreet retreat for a confidential consultation with one of the consultants on-site.

Gamification can be rendered in the form of digital island consoles, for example, that give you city by city views of all available real estate properties you can invest on. Walking into the private customer lounge of his bank, Ahmed can view an expanse of Dubai’s hottest properties on the console, helping him assess whether a Dubai Canal property would give more favorable returns over a property on the Palm. Sounds familiar? No, it’s not your favorite boardgame, Monopoly.

In stock investment scenarios, Ahmed can virtually compete with other virtual investors as he is given real time and real world stock options and scenarios. Using levels and badges, he can virtually see his ranking and gauge his abilities without literally breaking the bank.

All these, including customer service via chat bots, queue management at supermarkets, motion-capturing cameras, and an ever growing exhaustive list of technological ideas, all prove that digital retail is your new hybrid – demonstrating how the real and the virtual worlds can be combined –albeit intelligently – in brick-and-mortar retailing to the end benefit of the consumer himself.


*WeShop and WeFinance are digital retail concepts developed for brands and financial institutions by the Serviceplan Group, in partnership with Cisco and Vitrashop, among others.