Ashraf Ali, The Executive Director of Lulu Group International, the largest retailer in the MENA region, speaks to the Zone about rrowth and expansion, sustainability and environmental awareness, the Covid-19 Pandemic, and his passion for the group and its ambitions.
The Zone: What do you attribute the Lulu Group’ success to, and where is there an opportunity for growth?
Ashraf Ali: LuLu has been at the forefront of the retail industry since the 1990s, and today we have a global operation with 195 stores and sourcing operations in 22 countries. Apart from retail, we have ventured into multiple fields, such as hospitality, tourism, food sourcing and manufacturing.
We, at LuLu, have a vision to become the most preferred organisation in the retail and related sectors worldwide, and we can only achieve this through expanding our global presence and strengthening the pool of talented and diverse employees we have in order to service our multi-ethnic clientele. Continuous innovation, sustainability and excellence in customer service have been the main pillars of our growth.
Our vision for the future is to strengthen our presence in existing markets further and explore opportunities in the MENA region to grow the store count rapidly. Apart from the physical presence, online shopping is going to be our next focus area, where we see vast potential.
The Zone: Why are you passionate about what you do?
Ali: Right after my education in India,I joined my elder brother, our Group’s Chairman, Mr Yusuff Ali M. A. in 1981, and ever since then this is the only business I have been involved with. So, in a way, I have grown up with the organisation and the retail industry.
I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time when the UAE was on the cusp of phenomenal growth. Back then, we had a very lean team which gave me much-needed experience in almost all aspects of the business. Shopping and retail is a very exciting and dynamic sector, and we, as a growing organisation, are always on the lookout for ways to innovate each process, which I am personally passionate about. In short, new markets, new sectors and innovation geared towards serving more than 1.6 million shoppers a day is what keeps me going.
The Zone: The importance of sustainability and environmental awareness is unlikely to erode, particularly among younger consumers – health is the new wealth – so how will the Lulu Group continue to push back boundaries in this area of business?
Ali: Besides being well-known for our wide product range, we have been a proactive promoter of social initiatives, sustainability, health and wellness awareness, and environmental protection. We have been in partnership with both government entities and private charitable organisations for advocacies that benefit the welfare of the needy, not only in the Gulf region but across the world. CSR involvement is a core policy within the Group. It is our way of giving back to society. Whether it’s a campaign within the store premises or a third-party initiative, our hands are always wide open for a good cause. From energy-saving home appliances to advocating for education- themed campaigns, support for people of determination, cancer awareness, and so much more, whether a big or a small project, LuLu has always been a strategic partner of concerned groups.
When we launched our reusable shopping bags three years ago, we were totally over whelmed with the great response we had from our loyal customer base; which is why we have planned to launch another set of jute bags, which will appeal to the younger market with its new design and messaging. We have also introduced green checkout counters for shoppers’ to benefit from more convenient and faster transactions whenever they use reusable bags.
We make sure that our product range improves over time, depending on market demand, especially with regard to healthy foods. We have dedicated special sections in both our stores and e-commerce sites for healthy, diet-based, and free-from ranges for the convenience of our shoppers. This continues to progress with the expansion our hot food and deli categories, where we are infusing healthy ingredients into all-time favourites, such as immunity shots, grab and go sandwiches and salads, and even vegan selections.
The Zone: When did you first open a facility in Jafza, and why did you choose this location? What are the benefits?
Ali: We started operations in Jafza in 2015 to ensure faster and timely supply of goods to the UAE and overseas markets. The warehouse acts as a transit hub and imports from over 34 countries. Alongside the UAE market, we focus on exports to Oman, Bahrain, KSA, Kuwait and Egypt.
The Zone: What facilities do you have in Jafza, and how important are they to your operation?
Ali: The warehouse runs on a state-of-the- art WMS system, which is integrated into SAP for improved efficiency and maintaining accurate stock keeping. It handles all warehousing needs, covering imports/Ali: The warehouse runs on a state-of-the- art WMS system, which is integrated into SAP for improved efficiency and maintaining accurate stock keeping. It handles all warehousing needs, covering imports/storage/exports of Lulu’s fashion retail concept ‘REO’. Our team liaises continuously with the Dubai Customs and other local governing bodies to ensure our products meet all required standards and quality. With a dedicated staff of more than 120,our warehouse handles over 20,000 SKU’s spread over a range of categories, including textiles, electrical/electronics, household, stationery/party and seasonal, IT products, footwear, home furnishing, luggage/bags/ accessories, toys, and outdoor/garden/ sports.
The Zone: Do you have any plans to expand or update the facilities in Jafza? How do you see the Lulu Group evolving in Jafza over the next five years?
Ali: Obviously, with the kind of growth plan which we have chalked out we will surely have to expand our facilities in Jafza. As we add new stores, new markets, new procurement centres and boost our online shopping business, we forecast additional capacity requirement to the tune of 50% of the current size. We are also working extensively with our logistics partners to enhance and update our systems and infrastructure to meet the growing demands of the international marketplace.
The Zone: How do you maximise the potential of your workforce?
Ali: Business is not just about money, products or services. It’s all about people. I have always believed that the reason behind the LuLu Group’s success is its more than 55,000 employees. We empower our staff through continuous training, skill enhancement and diversifying business roles within the organisation for career advancement. Our staff is an integral part of our ecosystem, and we wouldn’t be enjoying the success we do without their passion and huge efforts in our daily operations. The biggest testimony to our human resource initiative is that our staff turnover ratio is less than 1%, the least in the Gulf region.
The Zone: The LuLu Group now has almost 200 hypermarkets in operation – why do you think the consumer has responded so positively to the company’s offer?
Ali: Over the years, the LuLu Group has been offering a brilliant combination of internationally sourced products, warm customer service, and the most competitive prices in the market – making us the ultimate one-stop-shop for lifestyle essentials.
These unique factors have brought us to this level of success, where our customers give us their utmost trust and loyalty in whatever we bring to the market, whether it’s something traditional or relevantly new. One of the main reasons is we take pride in showcasing the diverse and rich heritage of different countries through both food and non-food products, which makes us truly where the world comes to shop. Our brand identity is not only evident in our product offerings, but also in our multi-national staff members.
Continuous Innovation, Sustainability and Excellence in Customer Service Have Been the Main Pillars of Our Growth
The Zone: What challenges has the Covid-19 pandemic thrown up, and how have you tackled them?
Ali: As the pandemic hit the region, LuLu launched a 360-degree campaign, ‘LuLu, where the world comes to shop, SAFELY!’ In an effort to give assurance on food security and safe shopping, LuLu has enhanced its logo with an important element featuring the word ‘SAFELY’, in both English and Arabic, which has been the focal point of all key messages used in all marketing and communication platforms at LuLu – from in-store branding to digital media channels, above-the-line advertising, and CSR initiatives.
All stores across the region have a unified protocol for safety measures, such as social distancing practice, thermal check, and entry of the elderly and children, in line with the government mandates of each respective country. This includes ensuring 100% safe shopping through deep cleaning and sanitisation as per government standards.
To highlight the heroic efforts of the country’s essential workers from the healthcare industry, LuLu introduced priority checkout counters and trolleys for a faster and more convenient shopping experience.
And to ensure an uninterrupted food supply for the residents of The UAE, LuLu has arranged flights to keep its stores well- stocked with essential products at the most affordable prices.
Moreover, due to the limitations brought by the pandemic for physically held events, LuLu spearheaded innovative ways to promote its festivals, store openings, and promotions in a safe way through online events and virtual inaugurations.
In the time of Covid-19 and lockdown, LuLu has played a very crucial role and ensured uninterrupted supply of food and non-food products while maintaining the highest standards of hygiene, health and safety of both its customers and employees.
The Zone: What are your targets and goals for the Group over the next year?
Ali: The Covid-19 pandemic has obviously brought about new thought processes and underlined a need to re-align our priorities, but one thing we are committed to, is our growth plan. Not a single project has been shelved. In fact, we have inaugurated 11 stores this year alone. Our goal is to reach 200 stores in the next six months. We have full faith and confidence in the visionary leadership of this great country. We will continue to explore more business opportunities in line with our expansion plans and growth activities across our current scope and other territories.