Michael Zakkour ‘The future, as I see it, is the new retail.’

Michael Zakkour is a retail and consumer thought leader and hands-on practitioner who was instrumental in the early ‘infrastructure-building days’ of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. He was an early pioneer in the prolific Chinese digital and retail revolution, a two time best-selling author.

Douglas Hampton Dowson

7 min read

Zakkour’s 25 years of experience in digital commerce and retail has seen him innovating marketing, sales, and integration strategies and tactics for some of the world’s biggest brands and retailers. He was also among the first to bring ‘The New Retail’ model, an integration of online and offline technology, content, and supply chain, to the west.

Michael now spends his days pioneering the transformation of digital commerce/retail through the application of Immersive Commerce, 3C Integration, and Unified Commerce. He’s the founder of 5 New Digital—a new retail, unified commerce, and retail technology research, strategy, and execution agency.

You won’t want to miss Michael’s experienced, knowledgeable, and powerful words of encouragement. His story is impressive, and his exploits intrepid—and we’re proud to welcome him as an official Convrt Awards Judge.

Can you describe your job in one line?

We empower companies from around the world to leverage the digital economy for their growth and profit.

Can you identify a tipping point in your personal career where you started to see success? And are there any lessons you learned?

I’ve been very fortunate in that I had not one, not two, but three major tipping points in my career that have created the person and the professional I am today.

I was very lucky in the mid-nineties to fall into the world-building of Web 1.0. I’ve been involved in digital commerce, e-commerce, and digital retail from day one.

The second major tipping point was about a decade later. I was offered the opportunity to go live and work in China. I’d been in 35 countries for business before that but didn’t know much about China. Going there right when China joined the WTO, which really propelled China to go from the 50th largest economy in the world to the second largest, I really learned about the Chinese retail consumer, and marketing landscape. My primary purpose was to bring global brands, retailers, and CPGs to that market. So obviously, I learned about how business is done there and positioned myself as a bridge between the two cultures and the two continents.

Then finally all that work I’d put in so culminated in my founding a company called 5 New Digital.

I’d taken all that I had learned about global commerce, retail, global supply chains, and the power of digital commerce to create this company. I think the greatest lesson for me was how interconnected all of those things are.

If we look at what’s really shaped the business landscape over the last 30 years, we can look at the emergence of the internet and e-commerce. We can look at the re-emergence of China and Asia as a global power and center of wealth, and the important roles that supply chain logistics and fulfillment play in making the world of commerce grow.

So taking those lessons, I created a company that reflected that new reality, that digital economy. As I said, we really empower companies to leverage the power of technology and data to build bigger and better businesses.

What advice can you offer to others starting out in this industry to really thrive and avoid burnout?

The thing that really drives success, in the business world we live in today, is first and foremost learning to be a great communicator.

We live in an age of video conferencing, of always being on the stage. We’re building our personal brands, and we’re building our company brand. And so, being an excellent communicator verbally and through the written word is really number one. It’s what differentiates you—and not just in our industry, but in any field. Whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, or a consulting expert, communication is what differentiates you.

The second lesson is, always keep an open mind and listen more than you talk. That’s certainly something I learned to do over the years, which is to surround myself with brilliant people and listen to what they have to say. None of us can be an expert in everything. So really, surrounding yourself with smart people is key.

Another reality is a lot of us do face the prospect of burnout. We’re being asked essentially to be on the job twenty-four-seven, right? Your phone never shuts down, and your computer rarely goes down. So really, kind of giving yourself the opportunity to step back—whether it’s an hour during the day or 15 minutes or on the weekend—to really refresh. You really need to avoid burnout because a burnt-out professional is not a very effective one.

The thing that really drives success, in the business world we live in today, is first and foremost learning to be a great communicator.

What does leadership mean to you?

I think being a leader is surrounding yourself with smart, motivated people and giving them agency to make decisions.

Surround yourself with people who are motivated and who are creative. As a leader, part of your job is, counterintuitively, to get out of the way, right?

Leadership is not about micromanaging. Leadership starts with infusing your team with an ethos, about who you are as a company. Where do you fit into the world? What value do you bring to your client, your product?

So I think leadership is really about inspiration and delegation. It’s a fairly common cliché, but it’s true. You know, good people don’t leave good companies. Good people leave bad managers and bad leaders. And so, just setting the tone and the ethos and the pathos for who you are and what your company stands for is the most important leadership quality.

What does creativity mean to you?

Creativity? Wow! I think we’re living in a new renaissance in a sense. Everyone is empowered to be creative today. I subscribe to the idea that everybody has a creative spark inside of them.

The problem is people aren’t always put in the environments, the right environments, whether it’s school, college, or on the job. They’re just simply not given the understanding that their creativity is valuable. I think it’s important to know a person well to let them unleash their creativity.

From a technology point of view, creativity is all around us. If you go back 15 years to 20 years, you had a limited number of TV channels and you had cable. Now, look at today. There are more actors, directors, and producers working today than at any other time in the entertainment industry. Because we’ve been given all of these channels, streaming, on Twitch and video games, coding is becoming a basic life skill.

So creativity is something that’s in everybody, but they need to be put in the right environment and given the right tools to unleash it.

Thinking about the future, what are some of the key challenges that you see facing the industry? And what is your vision for the future of our industry?

We live in a world in which, what we call the digital economy, is powering growth all around the world. If we look at the US, about 40% of GDP is derived from the digital economy. This includes everything from digital commerce, the development of AI, data science, and automation in the warehouse. A world that’s powered by technology, IT, and data science—and then combined with the globalization of commerce and cross-border commerce.

The key is what we’ve really seen as the big change, in the last 10 years, has been traditional pure play, e-commerce companies adding physical channels. And then traditional physical retailers really investing heavily in digital commerce. The future, as I see it, is the new retail. We define new retail as the complete integration of online and offline technology, media, and supply chain to create an ecosystem.

There are maybe 25 global mega ecosystems today. We can look at Amazon, Walmart, and Target. In China, we have Alibaba, JD, and Tencent. In Japan, we have Rakuten, and we have Mercado Libre in South America. What all of these companies have in common is that they’ve integrated.

For brands, CPGs and retailers, it’s important that they understand the ecosystem model and understand how to engage the mega ecosystem players. And at the same time, build their own ecosystem. What we’ve really seen is acceleration, in the west, of the business model of new retail (which was born in China) as it’s being adopted widely across the world. Now we’re at a pivot point where, going forward in the next couple of years, the entire industry of commerce retail is going to be disrupted.

So it’s interesting. In a way, e-commerce disrupted traditional retail. And now, e-commerce is going through its own disruption and there are two key things to understand about that transformation.

Number one, we are seeing the rapid development of what we call immersive commerce. For the last 20 years, buying online has been basically the same experience—a two-dimensional flat screen where you scroll, click, look at an object, put it in a basket, maybe you buy it, maybe you don’t. When it comes to online commerce, it’s really been about buying and not shopping. And so what we’re going to see in the next two, three years is your screen is going to become three dimensional. It’s becoming spatial. It’s going to be infused with more augmented reality, extended reality, and live streaming commerce. Anything that brings your screen to life, to make that shopping experience three-dimensional, is what immersive commerce is.

And by the way, immersive commerce is about making your shopping experience online interactive and three-dimensional. But it’s also about reimagining the physical store and empowering that store with technology as well (whether it’s digital shelf technology, augmented reality, etc.) And then saying, okay, we’ve gone from omnichannel, which is simply adding channels to the new retail model, to the next step—being immersive commerce.

The other thing that’s going to shape the future of the industry, at least in e-commerce, is what we call 3C Integration. That is content, community, and commerce.

There are a lot of great companies out there who do wonderfully in pure play e-commerce or pure play physical, and who do really well with the integration of both. But what consumers are demanding today is more about great content in building a community. So, we’re going to see more and more brands lead with great content, build a community, and then last place is getting them to buy something.

So 3C Integration, plus immersive commerce, plus the new retail model is what’s happening today and what’s gonna shape the industry for a decade to come.

what consumers are demanding today is more about great content in building a community. So, we’re going to see more and more brands lead with great content, build a community, and then last place is getting them to buy something.

The Convrt Award is about authentic, independent recognition. Why do you think that’s important?

First I want to say that I am really excited and honored to be a Convrt judge for this year’s contest. It’s truly a unique organization in a unique way to recognize the people who don’t usually get the spotlight and the attention.

If we even think about the term Metaverse right now, right? We’re all trying to figure out what the Metaverse is and what it’s going to be. There are literally thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are working individually to create this new version of the internet or Web 3.0, right? There are startups everywhere. Like anything else, your startup is a brand that you need to break through the noise and the clutter to get recognition for. So it’s really important to shine a light on the people who don’t normally get it.

Some of the best ideas in history came from very humble beginnings. It was Steve Jobs and Wozniak, literally in a garage when they started Apple. We look at the founders of Google and you go down the list. These were people who had big dreams, but small budgets. In a way, I almost liken it to the music industry as well. There are thousands of bands that have great potential to be commercially successful, but only so many can be signed to a record label, right?

It’s really hard to get recognition and there’s nothing better than recognition from your peers in the industry. I’ve been a founder of quite a few startups in my time. I know what it feels like to have to wear five or ten different hats as you’re trying to get your company, your technology off the ground. So I think this is a really special opportunity to not only judge these companies, but to provide feedback and advice to them and really empower them for the next steps in their journey.

It’s really hard to get recognition and there’s nothing better than recognition from your peers in the industry.

What would you like to see from participants entering the awards? Any words of encouragement for entrants?

So some of the things I’ll be looking for with the participants is preparation. It’s cliché but 90% of success is preparation. I invest in a I’m part of a ventures group and you know, we see dozens of companies every month and they essentially have 30 minutes to impress. So being prepared, timing your presentation correctly, making sure that you’re not hitting the time limit and you still had things to say. Preparation and good timing are a big plus for anybody who’s competing.

And to really highlight the problem-solving aspect of what you’re bringing to market. We’re not necessarily looking for companies who are creating a problem just so they can solve it. We’re looking for companies that can apply technology, IT, data science, and retail solutions to grow commerce, to make things bigger.

The idea is that technology is not the end. Technology is the means to the end. In the world we live in today, consumers have one overriding demand. And that is, spoil me or else. Spoil me or I will find the brand, the company, the platform, and the retailer who will.

So I’ll really be looking at what problems are being solved and how your solution is consumer-centric.

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