When Piyush Chowhan took on the role of group CIO at LuLu Group International in November 2019, he faced a big challenge — leading digital transformation and implementing an omnichannel strategy at a diversified conglomerate with operations that span more than 20 countries. Little did he know that in a few months, a global pandemic would make his job even more complex.
Headquartered in Abu Dhabi and led by its retail division, LuLu has affiliates in imports and exports, shipping, IT, travel and tourism, and education. With an annual turnover in excess of $7.4 billion and a workforce of more than 50,000, the group requires a large IT team, and Kumar is responsible for 600 technology professionals.
Just four months after Chowhan joined LuLu, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and customer behaviour changed almost overnight. For example, two-thirds of UAE consumers made their first online grocery purchase during the COVID restrictions on movement.
“Corona has been a game-changing event for every enterprise and we are also impacted. We believe that digital transformation needs to be accelerated to retain our leadership in the retail space,” Chowhan says. “We want to implement more customer facing technologies which will make our customer offering more stronger.”
Changing customer habits transform retail
But even before the pandemic, retail was at the cusp of a transformation because of changes in customer habits and the rise of technologies like cloud computing, AI and machine learning, and big data analytics. These technologies are helping to create more personalized experiences for shoppers, with more choices for their purchases.
The implementation of digital technologies and sophisticated analysis of customer data is helping to create new sales channels. Examples include conversational commerce, which includes messaging apps, chatbots and natural language processing, and social commerce, which uses social networks to support sales. The pace of adoption of these technologies is picking up, and omnichannel sales with personalized offerings will become the norm, Chowhan says.
“We believe that omnichannel is the future and will continue to work on merging online and physical journeys for customer offerings,” Chowhan says. “We want to ensure that we enable customer choice of online and offline to get the best of both worlds to be more flexible in our offerings.”
Data plays a major role in this effort. “We are merging customer data across the online and offline channel to create an omni-view of the customer,” Chowhan says.
Using data to improve customer experience
Chowhan and his team are creating a data platform on a cloud-native data lake, which will help in creating AI-enabled services designed to enhance the customer experience. Data is being used by buying teams to improve their offerings, but it is also being used by digital marketing teams to analyse customer behaviour better.
To further boost its e-commerce strategy, LuLu opened its first online fulfilment centre in the UAE in December. Located at the ICAD Mussaffa in Abu Dhabi, the fulfilment centre will support the company’s online portal for multi-category shopping, and is designed to deliver a world-class shopping experience, deploying a fleet of vehicles to bring purchases to customers’ homes. The UAE fulfilment centre followed the inauguration of a similar e-commerce and logistics facility that opened in Oman in November.
Fulfilment centres boost e-commerce
The fulfilment centres reinforced efforts to meet the surge in e-commerce caused by the pandemic, as well as the need to ensure supply chain efficiency during a time of crisis.
“We at LuLu are proud to say that we played a significant role by sourcing efficiently so that none of our stores ran out of stock,” Chowhan says.
The food industry was declared essential during the pandemic. “We worked with the government and other agencies worldwide to ensure that we stock enough for food security.”
IT staff worked with colleagues in other departments to provision extra warehouse capacity and facilitate the movement of stock across the supply chain. “We made sure that employee safety was ensured to run our operations, which helped in business continuity for food to be available in our stores,” Chowhan says.
To help employees perform their duties safely, more than 1,000 VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) applications were provided for office staff.
Both LuLu’s efforts during the pandemic as well as Chowhan’s leadership have been recognised. LuLu was awarded the “Most Admired Middle East Retailer” award at the 2020 Middle East Retail Forum in November, while Chowhan was named one of the top 50 tech leaders in the Middle East in the first edition of the CIO50 Middle East awards in February.
Chowhan isn’t resting on his laurels though. “We believe that some of the digital transformation goals need to be accelerated because of fast change in customer behaviour,” he says. To do that, Chowhan says LuLu will be making more investments in digital commerce, using data platforms to harness information and serve customers better, and investing in personalization technology to devise campaigns which are more effective.
Ultimately, effective leaders understand when they need help to achieve their goals, and Chowhan is no exception. “We are hiring new talent which will bring new skills of digital and help in the transformation journey.”