Shahin Riaz, Head Of Product Management – eCommerce at eXtra; one of the leading consumer electronics and home appliances retail giants. He has over 15 years of experience with Fortune 500 Retailers including Walmart ASDA, Argos, TJ Max, Philips and he has been with eXtra for the past 7+ years.
0:00 Hello, everyone.
0:01 Welcome to yet another episode from the retail story, a podcast series that explores how technology is transforming retail, both from the business and consumer perspectives.
0:13 For everyone.
0:14 Joining for the first time here, each of our episodes features conversations with technology leaders and domain experts who talk about everything in and around the challenges retailers face the ways to address them new and emerging trends in industry and digital strategies that retailers are implementing today to win customer love and stay ahead of the game.
0:37 I’m your host, Mino Manisha Babil and today I have with me yet another industry expert Shaheen Ali, who is currently the head of product management e-commerce at extra dot com.
0:51 One of the leading consumer electronics and home appliances retail giants today extra dot com is the most popular destination and has more than 12 million shoppers with 45 branches across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman Shaheen has over 15 years of experience with Fortune 500 retailers including Walmart A S D A, Argos TJ Maxx Phillips and he has been with extra for the past seven plus years.
1:23 Welcome to the show Shaheen.
1:25 Thank you.
1:26 For joining us and it’s a pleasure to host you.
1:29 Hey, hey, thank you.
1:30 Thank you, manu.
1:31 Thank you very much for that hefty introduction.
1:34 And yeah, really looking forward to the podcast and a pleasure to be joining you guys today.
1:40 Thank you so much.
1:41 Let us just start with your background, your experiences and something.
1:47 Why retail?
1:48 How did you start like your journey in retail?
1:51 So I’m 15 years into the industry now and then let’s say, different capacities, different roles.
2:01 I started off as a technology person 15 years back on, on retail space, but mostly on, on, on technology side, I used to be an A T G developer back then even without having any background coding, et cetera.
2:13 So it was like a, a completely different career switch after studies, et cetera.
2:18 So I, I used to work with the pro previously before and yeah, as I said, I started off as an A T G developer.
2:28 Then eventually I figured that coding probably was not my forte and I wanted to move into a more dynamic, let’s say space which, which was you know, business functional side for me from a retail standpoint.
2:44 And that is where I switched to moving, you know, into another multiple other projects where I was, I got to a functional e-commerce, let’s say business analyst space.
2:54 And I’ve gone probably from various breadth of industries even.
3:04 this is even, let’s say tech.
3:07 I think it’s, it covers a breadth of technology and industries as well.
3:12 So I’ve worked in, let’s say retail space.
3:14 E-commerce, I worked in government space.
3:17 I’ve worked in healthcare to an extent.
3:19 I’ve worked in fashion over for a brief, brief amount of time.
3:25 But e-commerce retail has been my, you know, let’s say pet peeve for quite some time.
3:32 And this is where my expert is as well.
3:34 And so after almost a year and a half years with you know, massive like as Walmart Phillips, that is where I decided to make my jump from on to the Middle East and basically moved to Saudi Arabia around seven years back.
3:56 And I’ve been with extra for leading their let’s say, e-commerce product journey.
4:03 So again, I probably started off when we were almost very negligent from a, a store versus e-commerce split.
4:13 I mean, this was, this was where probably extra was almost moving, not moving away, but moving into more of a digital transformation space.
4:23 And we’ve come a long way in this last seven years.
4:25 So we’ve now ma, you know, major chunk or major share with respect to the split in business between online and, and stores.
4:34 So yeah, that is where that’s been the journey up to now from, let’s say 15 years back now.
4:42 You’ve covered all the industries and probably all the sectors I could dream of and digital, not just digital, I would say like marketing also.
4:52 Yeah, that, that, that I think that’s one of the perks that comes up with working in a company like because you can keep switching.
4:58 unlike where I basically represent business when I used to work with, it was mostly with different projects.
5:04 So a project and then you basically get bored of that project, you move on, you move on to another technology and another industry.
5:13 and it’s a completely different volume.
5:14 So it’s, it’s, it’s a lot of experience, a lot of good experiences as I see.
5:21 So let’s come to the digital com customer experience space.
5:28 How do you feel that people are more likely to purchase from brands which personalize and what are some of the major steps that you have taken to personalize the online shopping experience for extra dot com?
5:45 So it’s, it’s an, it’s a very interesting question.
5:49 So again, as I said, right from, from the onset of our journey, our digital transformation for extra dot com when I started off here, our basic intent or extra basic internet at that point of time, was to make sure we get a full fledged website out to customers right from, from an online perspective.
6:04 So stores are doing really well, are still doing really well actually.
6:10 but our online space was mostly very, it was mostly a digital catalog where so some customers would buy.
6:16 But it was not like, you know, it wasn’t really tailored suited for even online shopping at that point of time.
6:23 So that journey itself from, from the last seven years to move from, let’s say, just building a website and sending out communications, sending out mass communications per se mass blasts without giving a heat to what customer really you know, wants to buy et cetera from that position to come to a place where we are using a lot of technologies including al economy at this point of time where we are tailoring our customer experience and journey to be more personalized.
6:55 More importantly, our communications tailoring them to be more personalized.
7:01 So we are sending the customer information, advertisement marketing based on what is he looking for at this point of time.
7:10 So again, it’s very difficult to say that, you know, we’ll reach a saturation point over there.
7:16 But because everyday technology is changing, everyday customers expectations and needs are changing.
7:23 But then the evolution for us over the last seven years has basically seen the difference in the buying patterns as well.
7:31 So as opposed to me sending a mass blast of, let’s say the new iphone is here.
7:35 I’m gonna send it out to, you know, all of the six million customers or the, all of the, all of the, let’s say public in in the region and to see the dropout versus me, figuring out somebody who’s interested in smartphones, in particular, somebody who’s really interested in, let’s say iphones and, and sending them out a very personalized, customized and yet very relevant message.
8:00 It’s very evident to see the dropout or let’s say the the difference in click through of, let’s say these kind of communications at this point of time, even let’s say the recommendations that we show to customers.
8:11 So there are certain scenarios where we have to show generic recommendations to customers.
8:15 And there are other scenarios where we, we basically show personalized because we know this is a customer at this point of churn and the let’s say even the click through or the conversion of these different blocks is very evident even for brands, even for established brands.
8:31 For a matter of fact to say that personalization is not the way forward.
8:37 I think it is something that is already should have been achieved in the past and we are already almost way behind time with respect to getting to that saturation limit where we know that, OK, Shahan needs this item now.
8:52 So that is the important of personalization.
8:54 And I think it and that is how I think I see it from a brand perspective as well.
8:57 It doesn’t matter really whoever you are as a brand because there’s, there’s enough competition, there’s enough choice at this point of time.
9:04 Unless the right communications, the right customer experience is provided to you know, and, and profile that customer as him rather than them.
9:17 This is the most important.
9:19 So true, so true.
9:21 Yes, I do agree.
9:22 I can’t agree more that we should have done personalization long, long back.
9:27 But nevertheless, you mentioned about using Algo too late, we cover up.
9:34 You mentioned about Algonomy as the tool that you are using to personalize for your customers.
9:41 What were the let’s say the points or features or comparisons that led for you to opt for Algonomy and how have they been able to come so far?
9:58 Covering the pain points?
10:00 Yeah, so the good thing with the economy has again, it’s see, every, every, for me, every marketing, let’s say a marketing tool or every personalization tool, every recommendation engine comes with its own positives and negatives, no system is completely full, no system that is aided by an I T, let’s say software is not, is, is never 100% foolproof or is never sorry, 100% satisfactory from a business standpoint, right?
10:32 Having said that the one good thing that I’ve noticed with the economy and probably this is maybe because I’ve interacted with that.
10:39 One person is the expertise that comes with the solution itself, right?
10:45 So there are a lot of other recommendations in Engine as well.
10:49 I have worked with personally a few others as well.
10:53 But the stark difference that I saw with the respect to because I was and very interestingly, Algo, although it was called before, this was my, let’s say first implementation months, I joined as a major project per se, right?
11:10 So it’s quite close to my heart as well.
11:12 And from that perspective and the luckiest thing was I got to deal with somebody an expert on, on Algonomy original site fair.
11:22 The person was usually when, when you, when we go with partners, they’re more inclined on the implementation level, right?
11:29 To say that, OK, how can we get this quickly implemented, quick to market?
11:33 What is the best implementation techniques?
11:34 Let’s get more technical, technological, et cetera.
11:37 But the person or the support that I got from Algo was before we got into even, let’s say technicalities, we were talking function.
11:45 We were like shine.
11:48 You tell me as business at this juncture of your customer experience, you know, what do you expect your recommendations to basically to what kind of recommendations do you wanna show to your customers?
12:02 So, so I’m already bringing in a lot of customer insights, right?
12:05 And, and then there’s I think Algonomy algorithm, I think, or the number of strategies that I’ve seen with respect to what I can push as data to customers is, is quite a lot as opposed to other to, I’ve not seen a lot of other tools from a recommendation standpoint as a back end, I’m purely talking about the, the, the engine in the back end.
12:29 But I and I have closely worked with Algo back and the amount of strategies that, that not I and I think this comes with a learning from, from both perspectives.
12:40 One is the, let’s say industry best standards, the expertise that comes with the person who’s working on it and also getting inputs from customers.
12:49 When I say customers, customers here are not actual end user customers, but business, right?
12:55 So having incorporated all of these things into your set up, I think the implementation was really smooth.
13:06 Although technologically, you’ll always have issues which is mostly to do with integrations and stuff.
13:11 But from a business integration perspective, Algonomy was amazingly smooth even with let’s say a merchandizing team, who’s, who’s really not fully equipped to work with systems, right?
13:25 They, they, they mostly function from a business standpoint.
13:27 They’re not really fully equipped to deal with I T systems as much.
13:32 I call it I T system, but it’s the systems per se.
13:36 So Algonomy was even slightly easier for them to, you know, get into.
13:41 And I think that, yeah, that, that probably was a beautiful differentiation for me from an Algo standpoint.
13:48 And of course, the other thing was also post implementation.
13:53 It’s not like OK, most of the vendors, what they do is OK, once you’ve done the implementation, then I have a contact with you for three years.
13:59 I don’t care.
14:00 I might give you support, et cetera, et cetera.
14:02 But Algo, especially the people that I worked with on Algo side.
14:06 I work with and a few others and, and a few others as well.
14:12 Now these guys come back with recommendations from their side in terms of how, how, OK, I mean, this is how you’re utilizing us at this point of time and probably utilizing only 10 or 20 or 50% of our available resources from our side.
14:29 Why can’t you maximize the rest of the 50% to basically bring in that extra bit of sales or that extra bit of customer experience?
14:37 So that is another, let’s say, important differentiator that I see from on, on, on Algo side as opposed to some of the other you know, partners or, you know, strategy partners that I worked with.
14:51 True, true, very true.
14:54 I can’t agree more.
14:57 what according to you.
15:01 was the challenge like the biggest challenge we are talking about is when people were not understanding personalization and when you started your journey internally, what were the biggest challenges and during implementation or you know, selection of strategy and how were you able to overcome them?
15:20 Yeah, it’s, it’s an interesting question just like any, any digital transformation or, or even basically, you know, whenever we wanted to, we used to have the old age or the age old waterfall methodology of implementation.
15:33 And then a child came into picture and then what we probably a child, people did not figure out was you just don’t put a child or implement a child in a team, you basically do it, you know, top down as an organization similar to that personalization as a concept.
15:47 Although it’s very easy to you know, lay down to say that, yeah, it’s just identifying me as a person, what are the different elements?
15:58 And, and again, so there is always a thin line with respect to identifying shine as a customer and not to invade into shine’s privacy, right?
16:07 So there’s always let’s say that thin line that this, which is, which is very important as well.
16:15 So as an example, if, if we were to launch the new iphone, right?
16:21 Although the mind is saying that fine we need to and this is let’s say from an organization perspective or from a people thinking perspective.
16:30 Although the mind would be saying that and we should personalize and send the communication for this new iphone only to the customers who are really interested.
16:39 But then there are also other tricks, other parameters playing in my head to say that I need to back to my sales, right?
16:45 This is one of the objectives any retailer would have as an example, I need to bring acquired new customers.
16:50 I need to basically convert other customers.
16:54 And that conversion is a very interesting fact because it’s not to say that me as a retailer, I’m really interested in you converting from, let’s say a brand to another brand.
17:03 But for me at this point of time, most important priority is to sell this brand.
17:07 So I need to probably make sure that I know I somehow change your mind and then you know, migrate you from this place, this brand to another brand.
17:15 So I think all of these are, let’s say internal conflicts that that are major roadblocks for actual personalization where customers, although we want to send out proper measured noninvasive messaging marketing or even let’s say personalized recommendations to customer, there’s always the devil that’s playing around in our heads, which is, but there is a bigger objective that needs to be met.
17:45 So how do we figure out the optimal and both of them are important and not to, let’s say, trivialize one or the other because both of the objectives are right.
17:55 There’s, there’s no, there’s no actual right or wrong in either of the thinking.
17:59 It’s about finding that middle ground of how do I personalize yet?
18:04 How do I basically make sure that I also get the other parameters that are required from my K P A perspective from my company K P S perspective.
18:13 And for, for me as a brand as well.
18:15 So, so I think these are, let’s say few challenges from a from a retailer standpoint from business wise integration again in integration is all about data.
18:24 I am of the world again where we, where I keep saying that we are far behind with respect to utilization of data, we have so much data and I think probably we are late adopters.
18:37 Let’s say we are as a region, probably we are slightly late adopters with respect to data.
18:42 I think data mining data selling data as a business has been already, it’s been quite some time, right?
18:49 But the amount the importance of data is being realized is slightly already being realized.
18:56 I think at the event from the event of COVID, this is when people are slightly moving away from, not of course COVID, people had to move away from brick and mortar to come online.
19:07 And then when you come online, it’s all about then I don’t know me as a person.
19:11 again, not putting anything against your name, but sometimes it’s for, for certain country people, they wouldn’t know even if was a male or a female or he was a male or female, if they walked into a brick and mortar, I would know is a lady is a guy.
19:27 But online again, this is data.
19:29 This is the power of data and, and recognizing, identifying, collecting and mining this data to basically push the right objectives for us.
19:39 This is the most important thing from a technical integration of how we get the right data and how we mine the right data and how we use it again in such a way that this does not really invade my privacy.
19:55 At the same time, it’s identifying me as shine rather than Hello mystery.
20:01 True, true.
20:02 We’ve touched upon a very, very interesting and very important aspect I would say here, data, like we moved from data silos to organizing classifying data, grouping data.
20:13 Then now we are at a place where we are stitching online and offline like brick and mortar data has to come in handy for the online experience as well and vice versa, and vice versa.
20:25 So in this age of digital disruption, what can be like let’s say for the retailers who are starting what can be done by these retailers to unify that online and offline experience without entering that, you know, exceptionally personal stage without invading their privacy.
20:47 So, I think again, see data collection is, is always very contentious, especially online, even offline for that matter.
20:58 You can’t make a lot of these things mandatory, right?
21:00 If you, if you, if you ask a customer, and again, it also depends on, especially stores online is, again, it’s, it’s two slightly different discussions per se in stores.
21:11 It depends on the person who’s basically at the cash.
21:14 What is his interest to basically understand you as a customer?
21:18 And I’ve noticed this, let’s say in even in a lot of supermarkets, groceries as an example to the same, let’s say to the same store that I go, this can be any store by the way.
21:30 And I’m a repeat customer by the way.
21:32 So probably there are five salesmen in that store and I’ve encountered each of these five salesmen.
21:38 Probably not.
21:39 All five salesmen are gonna ask me if I have loyalty, right?
21:43 Some of them would just basically scan the item and say go ahead, just pay and the three others who are probably really interested, they would say, oh, do you have a loyalty?
21:50 And then can you give me your mobile number?
21:52 If not do if not, do you want to be a loyalty member?
21:55 Can you share your details?
21:57 So store is a very is a it’s a very personal experience.
22:04 It depends on the personality of who’s basically, you know, collecting this information from the store and also how the customer reacts it.
22:11 It also differs region to region.
22:14 Of course, every region has their kind of customers per se.
22:18 Now, online is again, another slightly different game online is about every registration, every registration that we take in ideally is an opportunity for us at the same time.
22:33 So, so how we basically there are there are multiple things that you know, you can incentivize customers to basically say that over register up with us and then get a 15% voucher code on your next purchase or whatever that is.
22:46 So there’s a subtle way of how you take the initial registration and then take the rest of the information at a later stage rather than pressurizing the customer to basically start filling up a form of 100 and 50 fields and basically look into your registration.
23:00 Nobody does that.
23:01 I mean that, that, that used to be the case previously on even on e-commerce or digital website.
23:06 There used to be forms of, you know, like let’s say 50 fields, your salary, all of your details, all of the details which you don’t want to even give somebody.
23:15 This kind of information is asked.
23:17 And I think over a period of time, e-commerce digital space have realized that this is a lot of this is actually intruding into somebody’s private space.
23:25 I don’t want to basically define what is my gender or, or, or what’s my pay scale or, or where do I work at this point of time?
23:32 It’s not about, I don’t want you to know my birthday as an example or my age.
23:36 I’m very sensitive about my age as an example.
23:38 So it’s about subtly first, you know, helping customers realize probably them registering with us is for a different purpose.
23:48 It is probably to better track your orders.
23:51 It’s probably to marry your data between online versus offline because offline, we are capturing the data, et cetera.
23:56 And then subtly at various points of the customer journey, try to gather information in a non mandatory fashion again, either by incentivizing them or telling them.
24:08 And if you do this, we can, we can give you this right.
24:11 If you give me this information, then I can tell you when the or if you as an example, if you tell me what is your interest with respect to?
24:17 Are you interested in smartphones?
24:18 I can tell you when the next smartphone is coming rather than me, basically sending you smartphones, refrigerators, washing machines, ovens and all kinds of products as in marketing.
24:27 So it’s a way of how again, it depends on your tone of voice.
24:32 It depends on how you gather this information.
24:34 So that the two, the collection of data from both these points are completely different and it’s true.
24:40 Especially in stores online.
24:42 Again, you can always devise journeys because you, you’ll get a lot of reference in stores.
24:48 There is nothing that you can do.
24:49 It’s completely dependent on your store personal.
24:52 It depends on your cashier or whoever is getting that information.
24:55 If he’s good, if he has all of the information, if he knows how to deal with customers, then you’ll get the information as you will not get the information.
25:02 And once you have this information, it’s important to unify.
25:06 I think from a technical perspective, what happens usually as an issue is sometimes the parameter that we use to identify a customer, it can be mobile number, email address or a customer ID, whatever that is, is not really the same between your stores versus online.
25:23 And because of that, there usually is a duplicate in terms of how do I identify the customers.
25:29 But if we, and, and you, you ask, you ask for somebody who’s gonna start, right?
25:34 If they can already define that parameter, this is gonna be my identifier for a customer.
25:40 It’s a mobile number or an email address, then things will become very easy because that becomes your primary key and then there’s no duplication of that value.
25:47 So then once you have the data across both, you’re already marrying both those data.
25:50 So I think that that probably would again, easier said than done.
25:54 It’s I’ve, I’ve had all kinds of experiences with different kinds of clients.
25:58 So easier said than done.
26:00 This concludes the first part of my conversation with Shaheen.
26:05 Stay tuned for part two, where we dive deeper into personalization, the role of A I machine learning and so much more till then, take care and stay safe.
26:16 Thank you.