Bridging the Digital Skills Gap in Retail

GUEST BLOG: In this guest post, Laurent Homeyer, retail and hospitality industry advisor in EMEA & APJ at Workday, discusses the need for digital skills as physical retail starts to re-open. 

The high street looks very different today than it did a decade ago. The rapid growth of e-commerce brought immense opportunities and threats to the industry. And while the “retail apocalypse” over the last ten years was wildly exaggerated, there is no denying that the pandemic over the last 18-months has changed the UK retail landscape forever – especially for brick-and-mortar stores. The pressure of restrictions, combined with high rents, and intensifying online competition is leading to an intense set of challenges. Chief among them is the need for digital skills.

According to the CBI, 9 in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030. Retail employees in particular will need to be upskilled, as they have to respond and adapt to new processes, such as automation, and an industry that is shifting more towards digital. Retailers have to hire to meet new demands, and at the same time need to act quickly to upskill these essential workers – many of whom have been furloughed for months. The question is, how?

UK retail reopens – and it’s all about skills, skills, skills

As brick-and-mortar retail reopens – and the UK experiences the highest quarter of retail spending on record –  they now need to reassess, recoup and ensure that their employees have the skills to drive recovery, while working in a supportive environment. A critical part of this is the real need for retail leaders to acknowledge the way in which their employees stepped up during the pandemic.

Retailers must create an environment that is safe to return to, adapts to changing circumstances, and most importantly provides the skills and opportunities to make jobs in the sector more appealing. From better benefits and training opportunities, to improved processes and enhanced working conditions, multiple elements have to be addressed to ensure retailers are attracting and retaining talent in their businesses. Driven by extensive digital transformation during COVID-19, retailers are turning to technology to solve this issue.

Technology in this context is not only valuable in helping to adopt new services such as automation and augmented reality, it also enables managers and leaders to identify and assess the skills within their workforce. They can bring together data from across departments into one single platform and use data analytics to give them a clear view of the business and the skills that will be crucial to their growth. Primark, as one of the UK’s biggest retailers has embraced this approach and used technology to understand how people were deployed and the skills they needed, giving it the agility to react as circumstances changed daily. As a result, Primark, using data analytics via Workday, is able to recognise the digital native nature of its workforce and customers. The retailer was, for example, able to introduce support systems and initiatives to help employees upskill and create a more compassionate culture while they were furloughed. As a result, it now has the skills and talent in place to drive recovery and connect with its customer base.

Bridging the skills gap

Ultimately, retail workers, many of whom were classed as essential workers during the pandemic, have proven over the last 18-months just how critical they are to attracting customers, and driving sales in-store. Arguably their role is as important, if not more so than product. As restrictions lift, and life returns to something a bit more familiar, retail leaders now need to focus on investing in these workers by reskilling and upskilling them for the new digital economy. By focusing on implementing the right technology, retailers will survive and thrive for years to come. After all, e-commerce is here to stay, and the skills needed for this new normal must be acquired and developed if the UK high street is to go from strength to strength.


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