Michael Zakkour “Unichannel tears down walls with one goal: better and more commerce”

Zakkour’s extensive retail career and widespread knowledge of Chinese consumption have made him a leading expert in global digital strategy.

Douglas Hampton Dowson

9 min read

With a career spanning over 20 years, VP of Asia Strategy and Digital Commerce at Tompkins International, Michael Zakkour is a global business integrator. His unique and comprehensive background consists of expertise in The New Retail Strategy, digital and eCommerce solutions, global consumption, consumer markets and more.

Zakkour has lived and worked in China for 17 years, which has allowed him to fully immerse himself in the Chinese marketplace. This experience has enabled him not only to engage in retail growth strategies and implement solutions all throughout China, but to articulate how Chinese tech giants are changing the future of global commerce.

Michael Zakkour is an innovative thought leader who understands technology, branding, consumer behavior, retailers, market trends and commerce in a way that transforms companies around the world. We sat down with him to talk about his beginnings, the differences between an omnichannel and unichannel approach, his latest book, and the advice he’d give his younger self.

Tell us about your upbringing

I grew up in an extremely international family. My father had 10 brothers and sisters. He was born in Tripoli, Lebanon. He grew up on the Mediterranean ocean and he was speaking English, French, and Arabic by the time he was seven. And that’s also when he fell in love with America. But he was exposed to the world at a young age. And as each of them turned 18, nine out of the ten brothers and sisters left Lebanon and struck out to find their future and their fortunes in another country. They all ended up marrying somebody from the country they landed in. One uncle married a Danish woman, one married a French Canadian woman, Portuguese, Brazilian. And so by the time I came along, my father married an Italian from New Jersey. He was up here working for Bell Labs.

I grew up in a world where seven or eight languages being spoken at the dinner table at any given time. So that was my world, it was international. I really feel in my soul, you know, I’m half Italian, half Lebanese, and I feel the spirit of the Roman empire in me, and I feel the spirit of the Phoenicians. They were the first world traders. It was almost like I was destined to be an international traveler, and international trader. My first dream, I wanted to be a rock star. I literally, from the time I was 10 until I was 15, I thought that if I didn’t become a rock star, my life would literally not be worth living. I wanted to be John Lennon. I wanted to be Joe Strummer from The Clash. I wanted it to be Bob Dylan. I literally couldn’t imagine my being worth anything without music because music is central to who I am. My problem was I was tone deaf and I had no talent. So that dream died fairly quickly. 

I feel the spirit of the Roman empire in me, and I feel the spirit of the Phoenicians. They were the first world traders. It was almost like I was destined to be an international traveler, and international trader!

So after that, what did you want to get into?

I became politically conscious at an unnatural young age. I guess I wanted it to be a social justice warrior before there was a term for it. When I was 11, I joined MSC international inserted working on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. This was the late seventies into the early eighties, and I got deeply enmeshed in that movement, which culminated in 1985. I got to share a stage with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, honored for my dedicated work to the cause of the anti-apartheid. In my high school yearbook, I was voted most likely to take over a small South American country. So that’s been at the core of who I was from, from as far back as I can remember. And you know, I’ve done my best to maintain that throughout my life.

What was your first job?

My first job was in old media when I was 10. Sunday newspapers. So, the local, kind of, all in one shop, your local general store, they would bring me in on Saturday night and we’d go out in the back room and it was our job to take all of the different sections of the paper and put them together. And then Sunday morning they would bring the front page section and we’d come back and just wrap the front section around everything we put together the night before. But I read every page of every newspaper, every weekend and started a lifelong love affair with newspapers. 

What did you study in college?

Marketing and political science. Which leaves out a large part of what I do today in my professional life in terms of where geopolitics meets commerce, meets international relations – what’s going on with China and the U.S. right now. But I’ve been very lucky in my career because I feel like lightning has struck three times in places I never expected it.

What do you mean by that?

When I came out of college, I thought I was going to go into government service, diplomatic Corps, NGO, UN, you know, to carry on my teenage years. And for my first job, I went to work for a lobbying and PR firm, and a guy came in and told us that he had an idea on how he could sell products to people on CompuServe, AOL and prodigy. And my boss said, what’s a CompuServe? What’s an AOL and what’s a prodigy? This is 1993, right before the worldwide web and the Netscape browser and mosaic entered the world. And this guy was essentially talking about eCommerce before there was a world wide web.

So 1993 is when your brain starts thinking about ecommerce?

It’s when my brain got turned onto the idea technology, commerce and politics, finding a new nexus and a new paradigm that had never existed before. And long story short, that launched me into the front lines of the web 1.0 world. I was there the day Expedia was born. I was there the day Amazon was born. So, lightning struck and I found myself shuttling between New York, Seattle, and San Francisco and from ‘93 to 2001, whatever little part I played, helped build this thing that dominates our lives today. Then bubble burst in 2000/2001, and for the first time since I was 10, I was out of a job. Then lightning struck again. I knew a stockbroker who told me he had a connection in China who thinks the market over there is going to be big someday, and that he’s looking for a young guy to go and explore it with them. Turned out they had a manufacturing company in Beijing that made leather jackets and I told the guy, I don’t know anything about China. I don’t know anything about manufacturing and I don’t know anything about fashion. And I was on a plane to Beijing two weeks later, and I spent four years working for this company and helped them go from one facility and one product line to – I think something like 35 facilities and 250 products in four years. So I landed at the opening salvo of the dotcom era and of the China era. Those first four years I was mostly focused on making things. Manufacturing, producing, supply chain, and I made a decision in 2005 that I was going to place my bet on Chinese consumers. I imagined a time when China would go from being the factory of the world to the marketplace of the world.

You hear all these headlines, that we’re in a retail apocalypse – no, we are not. We are in a store apocalypse.

What did people think when you shared that vision back then?

Most people didn’t see it because up until that time, the only international companies in China were the big mega food and beverage and CPG companies. Coca-Cola, P&G, or Unilever. On the other side, all the luxury companies were there – the jewelers and fashion companies like LVMH. So you know, the foreign commercial presence in China at that time was Oreos, $10,000 bags and $100,000 watches. And there was this giant vacuum in between those two. But I looked at the demographics and how the economy was changing in China, and I saw the rise of the middle class. So I started focusing on working with brands, retailers and service providers coming into the China market, and to meet and engage the Chinese consumers. So I ran that for five years. And then in October, 2010 I joined Tompkins international.

Was that the third lightning strike?

It was, but it took me two years to know that it was. I was brought in to give them the capability for China, APAC focused market consumer and digital strategy. And after about 2 years, I just started questioning this journey I’ve been on for 20 years. I fell into the most exciting business revolution in the world in 1993, fell into the second major disruption of the world with the rise of China in 2001. And well, what does this mean? I actually had an epiphany. The world was going to be shaped for the next 25 years by three things. The first was the reemergence of China as a global power, the second was the evolution of the internet and e-commerce, that instead of digital being a way for us to take a break from real life, real life has become digital, and walking the dog and going to parks is actually a break from that. And third, that global supply chains had shrunk the world as much as telecommunications did 50 years before. And not only had they done that, but these supply chains were the key differentiators for the biggest companies in the room. That’s when I looked at Amazon, Alibaba, JD, Tencent, Walmart, and Apple and asked – what do all these companies have? Aside from all of them being in the top 15 biggest market cap companies in the world. Their business model and competitive advantages come from putting supply chain as the business driver, engaging digital and having China as a pillar for everything they do. So for the last seven years I’ve developed an entire framework of thinking, acting, living, and doing business based on those three explosions. And so the third lightning strike was my luck of going to work for a company where my job really had nothing to do with what they did. They just had a division to see where I would play a role. So that has shaped everything I’ve done for the last seven years.

Regarding your book – why did you write it? Why do you think now is a time where an audience needs to hear about it?

So, my first book came out October 2014. And that book was called “China’s Super Consumers”, and it was everything I learned between 2005 and 2012 about the impact that a billion people with disposable income were having on their country and the rest of the world – on make or break fortunes on the company’s failures. And, at that time, watching how Alibaba and JD and the other companies actually took China from being a massive consumer market to a mega consumer market. And it was amazing because Chinese consumption exploded, not because of what China had going for it, but actually for what China didn’t have at the time. They didn’t have a massive legacy system of PCs and personal telephones. They didn’t have a legacy banking and investment systems and they didn’t have a legacy of modern retail. So the perfect storm came together. The smartphone, the digital payments in online retail – they converged with each other to create a digital-first society. And companies like Alibaba seized that energy and built an entire commercial consumer make, move, sell reality.

Do you see that then as being up there with the top 3 challenges for the U.S. market – that process of dismantling, that process of putting digital first?

Right. So that’s what my new book is about. It’s called, “The New Retail: Born in China and Going Global.” In some sense it picks up where I left off with the last book, because before, we had China’s super consumers and today, we have China’s digital super consumers. There’s no more copycat China, China innovates and builds technology. They build new systems – and in most ways, from a retail, commercial, consumer experience perspective, they’re five years ahead of the West on everything.

The problem with omnichannel is that it never actually integrated into the user experience, consumer experience, inventory allocation, or logistics.

You often talk about the evolution from omnichannel to unichannel. How do you help people understand the difference between the two?

In the beginning, there was the channel. You were a retailer, or you were a wholesaler. You were a retailer, or you were a brand. Then, a new channel developed – ecommerce. Now you could have retail, wholesale, and online channels. But as ecommerce started to evolve, it took on several different forms. Then marketplaces started to emerge, like Amazon. You could sell in a marketplace, or you could now start selling through third party general retailers such as Zappos. But early on during that evolution, there were all of these separate channels competing against each other – because every sale made through ecommerce is one you didnt make in your store. Eventually people started to come up with this idea called omnichannel. These different channels that you needed to harmonize to achieve a single goal, which had more efficient processes, higher margins, and increased sales. The problem with omnichannel is that it never actually integrated in the user experience, consumer experience, inventory allocation, and logistics. So over the last several years, the Titans of technology and retail and supply chain have created an entirely different reality for retail, which is why they are calling it, ‘The New Retail’. The complete integration of technology and logistics. A single new value and ecosystem. And within that ecosystem, you need to be a consumer facing company by implementing the 4C’s: consumer centricity, convenience, customization, and allowing for consumer contribution made possible by committing to the 4U’s: unichannel, unimarketing, unilogitics, and unitechnology.

Unichannel tears down the walls and the infrastructure that exists between your multiple channels, with the purpose of one goal through a single channel approach: better and more commerce. It is the complete commitment to saying your ecosystem and your habitats are all part of the same machine, and that’s what Alibaba has done better than anybody in the world. And here’s the beautiful thing about new retail. The difference between new retail and digital commerce is the rediscovery that brick-and-mortar matters. So when you hear all these headlines, that we’re in a retail apocalypse – no, we are not. We are in a store apocalypse. It’s a Retail Renaissance. There are more places, more ways and more things to buy globally now than any time in history. That’s the difference. So that is new retail, it’s unique channel focus. AI and data science are going to run the whole system. In unimarketing, data science studies and listens to you, and really gives you unilogistics solutions. So in these ecosystems, a brand and a retailer have to be ready to embrace all of that. 

Unichannel tears down the walls and the infrastructure that exists between your multiple channels, with the purpose of one goal through a single channel approach: better and more commerce.

Unilogistics and unitechnology seem like they would be the hardest for an international company to change because they have such embedded systems. How do you see that playing out over the coming years, and what happens if they don’t?

Unitechnology and unidata aren’t terribly difficult to achieve if you’re committed to doing it. Unitechnology is probably the most difficult part of the process. And again, it doesn’t mean that there’ll be one technology to rule them all. It’s more about stripping down your tech stack and knowing what to run yourself, what to outsource knowing where to allow the ecosystem runners to do it for you. Take Alibaba – they have two systems called Alimama, which is their marketing system, and their single ID system, where Alibaba’s 700 million active monthly members have a single ID across everything. So basically, rather than having to develop or buy a whole uni marketing stack of technologies and systems, Alibaba has gotten 90% of it done for you. Now, we are seeing Amazon, Walmart and Target all deciding they need to be in the advertising marketing business. What happened was, six years ago, 75% of all shopping searches started on Google. Today, 65% of all shopping searches start on Amazon. So Amazon realized that they had an opportunity to create an entirely new revenue stream and developed a “googleization” of their search and advertising. In addition to that, these companies decided they needed to be in the digital marketing business. Walmart just bought a digital marketing advertising company, Target is about to as well, and they’re getting themselves into the marketplace business. So now you’re going to be able to go and buy from or from the Walmart marketplace, on top of their 5,000 stores. And this is how stores like Walmart fight back against Amazon. Now we are starting to see that integrated new retail ecosystem model being put into place.

If you went back to when you were a young man, what advice would you give yourself?

Study harder. I was a mediocre student, and not that this has kept me from achieving anything I’ve wanted to achieve in life, but I figured out later how important achievement is. Personal achievement for yourself and no one else is important, just from a general self-satisfaction point of view. Number two, I speak at a lot of universities and high schools and the number one question I get asked is, “How’d you get to where you are today?” And I tell them the same thing over and over again, which is to be a great communicator. I remember what Bill Gates said about China 20 years ago, “You know, in the U.S. you could be a one in a million, but in China, if you’re one in a million, there’s a thousand on those a year.” So, you know, the ability to communicate verbally through the written language and graphically is what will allow you to pursue anything you want to do in life – and to do it the best.

Are you happy with where you are now?

I’m usually happy, but happy is a fleeting feeling. Contentment is the real goal. Contentment is feeling the same way every morning, afternoon and evening for many years running – it’s that general state of bliss. I’m happy, mostly. I don’t know if I’m content yet. I’m working on that!

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