Technology has completely redefined the modern world and the modern customer. As innovation drives change, businesses across the globe have to adapt and evolve in order to continue to meet and ultimately exceed changing customer expectations. As one of the premier shopping and lifestyle destinations in Lebanon, understanding this evolving customer and the role that technology has and continues to play in that shifting landscape is more important than ever before for ABC.

As the first retailer to open in the country since 1936, ABC Group combines world-class shopping dining and entertainment across six branches and three flagship stores throughout Lebanon.  The company prides itself on one critical component – innovation – and it strives to deliver on this through outstanding customer experience. “At ABC our purpose is to make Lebanon a better place and we do that by creating a great social hub offering the best brand mix and outstanding customer experience,” says Elie Harb, Head of IT & PMO. “ABC raises the bar very high when it comes to customer service, creating an unprecedented environment where we and our customers are part of one family. Our CSR activities and environmental initiatives are unique in the country and set an example for the competition and our population alike.”

Over the last five years, Harb has overseen a major digital transformation of ABC as the company continues to stay at the forefront of innovation and technology. With a career in IT spanning over 18 years, Harb has seen the role of IT and that of the CIO shift dramatically, moving away from the traditional support function and becoming a business enabler. “IT is now becoming more and more of a business driver pushing the boundaries of possibility for ABC to the max,” he says. “The CIO has assumed a prominent place in the strategic thinking of the business, not simply enabling and supporting other members of the C-suite to achieve their vision, but rather actively setting the agenda for the future of the digital enterprise. His role isn’t limited to just keeping the system running and updated (while that is obviously still important), but he became an agent of change and innovation.”

As Head of IT, Harb is a key driver of the digital transformation and looks to steer the company towards understanding how best to capitalise on the technologies on hand in order to optimise and automate business processes, enhance customer experience and improve productivity, all the while keeping a stable, updated and secure platform. Harb admits that as technology continues to evolve, the company must be agile in its approach to transformation and so it breaks down its transformation roadmap into three year plans that are renewed at the end of each period. This, Harb explains, allows the company to continuously assess its position on the edge of technology to remain the leader in the market.

ABC has defined its priorities for its digital transformation based on four pillars: enabling state-of-the-art customer experience, business enhancement and innovation; productivity increase and automation; infrastructure and stability. Throughout this journey, Harb can already point to key successes where technology has enabled true innovation and efficiency for the business.

“Looking at customer experience, we built the best loyalty program in the country and we became the first fashion retailer to implement a call centre as well as a 3D virtual reality way finding and mobile point of sale systems,” he says. “We were also the first to implement an intuitive business intelligence system with predictive analysis and machine learning. We’ve also optimised the buyers’ work by adding merchandise planning systems as well as opening our recruitment possibilities by adding an online recruitment system.”

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With technology comes the risk of always turning to technology for the sake of following industry trends rather than enabling true value for the business and return of investment (ROI). Harb is all too aware of this and recognises that while ABC is an early adopter, it does not follow blindly. “We pick and choose based on extensive vetting and we don’t let ourselves be impressed by ‘big words’,” he says. “Some trends have had a major impact on the retail industry, such as omnichannel retail which is causing major disruption, while others are still to show their worthiness. It falls to us to use our better judgment and expertise in the field in order to adopt the best solution possible and follow the route that will have a positive impact on our business.”

To this end, ABC will vet technology both internally and externally through the use of technology vendors and filter innovation and solutions through variable committees like the company’s Customer Experience Committee (CEC). “The CEC or the steering committee will analyse the business impact and the ROI both locally and globally,” says Harb. “Once approved, we then proceed with a final round of validation in order to ensure there are no hidden costs or impacts and that it fits exactly to our needs.”

Ultimately, those needs revolve around the customer and their experience. Harb notes that technology has opened up greater communications and visibility with its customers, something that he feels is an edge that no other retailers can offer. This is best exemplified through its mobile application. “Our mobile app ensures that our customers are always connected and informed about what we are doing for them,” he says. “It gives the customer full control over their loyalty points to redeem at any time without the need of physical interaction.”

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This loyalty scheme was extended to all shops within ABC’s department stores and malls, which vastly improved customer satis–faction. The company also became the first retailer to implement mobile POS within its malls to drastically reduce queues and allow for fast check-out during high seasons. “We also have digital signage, our VR way finding systems and free Wi-Fi. Combine all of our digital initiatives and we have created an incredibly unique customer experience that cannot be matched by other malls.”

For more than 75 years, ABC has strategically invested into technology in order to cement its position as the leading retailer in the market. Investing in technology is important, but Harb understands that the true enabler for ABC’s success today and tomorrow is its people. “At ABC, we believe that our greatest asset is our employees,” he says. “ABC takes employee development very seriously and makes it a high priority. Part of this development is participating in seminars, expos and developmental courses in each field. We’ve established an internal training academy and created programs specific for retail and our way of business and enrolled key people in them. We also built a talent academy to retain, motivate and promote talents.”

ABC’s investment into its people matches that of its investment into technology. It has and will continue to prove key in enabling opportunities and growth into the future. “We will continue to invest in innovation, technology and people,” says Harb. “We’ll do this to keep them updated and to not allow them to become obsolete or lose the investment placed in them and to continue to be the retailer of choice in the country.”

The future is bright for ABC. The company has already begun to make inroads into ecommerce and omnichannel that will be launched in 2019 and is also in advanced negotiations with some major brands to represent them in the country.

As Harb looks to that future, he can reflect on the digital journey of ABC and the lessons learned along the way. “It has been a challenging and interesting journey. The main take away would be to always challenge the status quo, build on solid ground by choosing the right partners, technologies and peoples and always be on the watch for disruptive technologies or market shifts. Internal communication, openness and team work are also key in any venture.

“From our past experience, we believe that constant evolution by pushing our limits and boundaries, market and trends awareness, employee development and most importantly customer satisfaction are the main pillars to achieve business success.”

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