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Retail’s IT talent search intensifies

Retailers from different sectors are on the hunt to fill similar IT job roles, but are all finding different ways to source the sought-after talent

Retailers are ramping up their efforts to find and recruit the best IT skills around.

From Ann Summers looking to build out its IT team after bringing in a new technology director, ex-Joules Jeanette Copeland, in March, to John Lewis Partnership (JLP) putting out a public statement of IT intent, the search for the top tech talent is well and truly on.

And no sooner had Missguided’s administrator Teneo announced the company’s demise at the end of May than Boohoo Group took to LinkedIn to highlight potential job opportunities for now-redundant technology staff at its collapsed business rival.

From Android and PHP developers to DevOps engineers, automation testers and product managers, a long list of available tech roles at Boohoo were listed. Boohoo also announced a technology recruitment day for 8 June, and CIO Jo Graham encouraged candidates to “just rock up – don’t worry about CV if you haven’t got one yet”.

Frasers Group has agreed to acquire Missguided, preventing a more significant number of job losses, but Boohoo’s attempts to tap into this tech talent nevertheless highlights the urgency among retailers to upgrade their skills in the IT and digital departments.

John Lewis publicises IT jobs focus

JLP said in May it wanted to recruit more than 150 roles as part of a major investment in digital.

The specialist roles, it said, would play a major part in helping to keep department store chain John Lewis and its grocery stablemate, Waitrose, en vogue with customers.

On the wish list for JLP are engineers “to bring innovation and expertise” to its software, cloud platform and native app, as well as data engineers and delivery leads. According to the retail group, the roles will help to deliver customer-facing projects on its retail websites at a time when online sales contribute to about 70% of John Lewis sales and nearly one-fifth of Waitrose sales – up from 40% and 5%, respectively, two years ago.

Highlighting what the recruits would work on, JLP said it uses Google Cloud and Amazon’s AWS platforms, as well as Kotlin and Java on its back-end and React and Next.js on its front-end.

Martin Schofield, former retail systems manager at Burberry, ex-IT and logistics director at Harvey Nichols, and now CEO of Retail247 Consulting, says it is true that technical resources are becoming “more scarce”, but he questions retailers’ decisions to recruit for tech roles on such a large scale.

“They are adding a huge layer of cost to already-expensive implementation projects,” he says. “I do question whether implementations measured in the tens of millions of pounds will ever provide a return.”

Regardless, retailers continue to hunt for the tech talent they believe will make a difference to their businesses in the years ahead, and there are several particularly sought-after roles.

Product managers, data and digital engineering

As reported by Computer Weekly, the Co-op is making great strides in the digital side of its business, having been late to the e-commerce game compared with its UK rivals.

The grocer says it has recorded more than 36 consecutive months of online growth since first entering the category in early 2019, and now operates online services from 2,000-plus locations in the UK. It uses stores as micro-distribution hubs in the communities it serves, and delivery partners include Deliveroo, Amazon Prime, and autonomous robot operator Starship Technologies.

In May, the Co-op announced it wanted to grow its online business in 2022 by a further 50% to £300m. The target was revealed as the retailer said its autonomous home delivery service with Starship had launched in Cambridge – the third area of coverage, after Milton Keynes and Northampton.

The Co-op is therefore looking to tap into relevant talent to support its expanding digital strategy, and the retailer’s e-commerce director, Chris Conway, says JLP’s recent public call for tech talent “is echoing the shortage in the market”.

He explains that seven or eight years ago, the sought-after roles were in web design and user experience (UX) – but times have changed.

“There are a lot of people who can do that now,” he says. “The way engineering and back-ends have moved on, you don’t necessarily need the designer talent you did. You need the nuts and bolts – the coders, engineers and developers, and you need more of them than before.”

Conway says that as well as the need for engineering people to support product teams and enable websites and partner integrations, there is also “a scarcity of talent” on the data side.

“It’s not so much analysts and insights people, but more the data engineering side,” he says. “Those ingesting the data, building the dashboards and sorting out the business intelligence – there’s a real challenge in finding people in digital engineering and data engineering.”

The e-commerce boss says the Co-op is always on the lookout for IT people switching jobs and suggests there is now more movement in the market compared to the early stages of the pandemic, when people tended to stay in their tech-focused jobs.

Redundancies at Missguided and, before that, European payments provider Klarna, which announced in May that 10% of its workforce would be departing, also mean some more relevant tech expertise is available to retailers looking to recruit.

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Those looking to strengthen will need to act quickly, however.

Conway says finding a good product manager is one of the most difficult tasks when recruiting in the tech space. “There are lots out there, but getting good ones who really understand the technology and the business side is challenging,” he says.

Underlining their importance, he adds: “They are the glue – they interpret the business problems and go and speak to tech teams, get them all together, and present solutions back to the business. For me, that is a really important role, and if you get that person right, it can make things a lot easier.”

All retailers are at different stages of their digital evolution, of course, with baby care products retailer Mamas and Papas currently focused on improving its online customer journey and strengthening customer relationship management.

Nathan Williams, chief operations officer at Mamas and Papas, says: “With inflation, macro factors and income pressures on the consumer, promotional and more price-driven retailers are likely to be more sought-after in the coming months.

“But we’re focusing on how to differentiate ourselves and our website. In our sector, it’s all about the experience of the consumer, so we’ve reviewed our digital roles to drive a better UX for our customers.”

This spring, for example, Mamas and Papas decided to bring the senior UX designer role and Shopify development roles in-house instead of using agencies. Williams saying bringing that expertise in-house has “allowed us to accelerate our plans”.

These are the skills the retailer believes it requires as it ramps up its efforts to better personalise the customer digital journey and communications. Mamas and Papas also wants to ensure its website continues to be more than a transactional platform, containing information and relevant links to partners that help consumers to navigate their way through the early stages of parenthood.

All of this is borne in mind as it chooses who to recruit and which digital and IT roles require the most focus.

‘An unavoidable layer of cost’

The ongoing evolution of the digital world means new jobs will emerge or existing ones will elevate in importance. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek article in 2018, Computer Weekly predicted the retail jobs of the future – and interestingly, none of those mentioned in the piece have arrived in their exact imagined form as yet, but judging by the pace of innovation and direction of travel, they still could.

Indeed, right now the change in retail jobs is coming in the form of incumbent IT roles being given more clout – those in charge of security, for instance.

“The technical world is adding new and unavoidable layers of cost, security being the best example,” says Retail247 Consulting’s Schofield. “This will become a more and more specialist role.”

Indeed, Mamas and Papas brought in Ronnie Fahy from CPP Group last year as head of IT operations to work with longstanding CIO Chris Greenwood. A key mission for Fahy is to improve the company’s cyber security, says Williams.

Williams describes shoring up cyber security as the retailer’s “biggest focus from an IT perspective”, and Mamas and Papas wants to do that by developing its in-house expertise and workforce. Other retailers are also adopting this strategy.

Although figures such as Mamas and Papas’ Greenwood, who has headed up IT at the retailer since 1990, are honourable exceptions to the rule, there is a modern trend for people to take on much shorter tenures in tech roles.

Another conundrum

This provides another conundrum for retailers recruiting in this space, says Schofield.

“The technical ‘youth’ are staying for shorter periods at any one company,” he adds. “There needs to be a fundamental shift in the recruitment fees model because at the moment, it is a massive overhead for an already expensive resource that may only stay 18 months.”

And so when news breaks like that concerning Missguided recently, it is not surprising that other retailers are quickly on the hunt for the redundant talent. Indeed, Frasers Group CEO Michael Murray’s remarks accompanying the acquisition statement are also telling in terms of retail’s demand for tech and digital skills.

He said Missguided will benefit from “the strength and scale” and “operational excellence” of Fraser Group’s platform, but added: “Missguided's digital-first approach to the latest trends in women’s fashion will bring additional expertise to the wider Frasers Group.” 

The battle for the most up-to-date digital and IT skills in retail continues to intensify.

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