Thousands of retail jobs have been threatened by the recent decision of several major UK retailers to close stores and restructure middle management.
In the build-up to the New Year and in the weeks since, the four largest grocers have announced strategies that involve a reduction in job roles. Debenhams, Marks & Spencer and New Look, meanwhile, are among multiple retailers considering downsizing their store estates, which will likely result in more staff requiring new employment.
Certainly, there are major headwinds in the retail space – be it the cost of employment, rising business rates or changing consumer habits – that are prompting the industry to evolve and make serious decisions around deployment of the workforce.
As part of its Retail 2020 focus, which comprises a series of in-depth reports and industry events, trade association the British Retail Consortium (BRC) aims to establish what this transformation will look like.
To date, the consensus is “fewer but better jobs”, in part prompted by a technological revolution that has fundamentally altered how people shop, the way retail businesses work and the skills required for the future.
In its coverage of the subject so far, the BRC notes there are 100,000 people employed in retail jobs that did not even exist five years ago, which begs the question of what the unknown jobs of the next five years and beyond might be.
Gauging opinions of those operating in the industry, we speculate on five jobs that might be just around the corner.
Potential retail job 1: AI intervention officer
Through its social media messaging on websites such as LinkedIn, online fashion house Asos talks of “tonnes of opportunities” at its business for QAs, software engineers, data engineers, data scientists, platform engineers and cyber security professionals, and the indications are this will be a common requirement across retail in the years ahead.
Josh Abbott, senior consultant for retail (tech and digital) at recruitment business Revoco, says adoption of agile and DevOps working practices has created several new roles that the likes of River Island, Tesco and Arcadia are looking to recruit.
It includes the creation of jobs such as scrum master, agile coach and DevOps engineers, which many online businesses – Boohoo, Missguided and Yoox Net-a-Porter, for example – have used to boost their tech credentials in recent years.
Talking recently at an event hosted by click-and-collect services provider Doddle in New York, Missguided’s chief technology officer John Allen said his business is looking at how traditional jobs might evolve, especially in relation to growing automation in the workplace.
It is crucial those working for the organisation begin to understand as much about business process as they know about the product they sell, he says.
“We have to make sure these people do not just understand our product but understand our technology and the way that technology is going to change the way they work – and that they are participating in the adoption of technology.”
“In most cases, particularly in the digital space of e-commerce, apps and digital marketing, you’ve got people who clearly understand how platforms work and how they interact with them because it’s their core job,” says Allen. “But when you get into the more traditional areas of product management, supply chain, merchandising and buying, getting those people to contribute to the technology adoption is much more difficult.”
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Allen warned that due to the growth in sophistication of automation, there is huge change coming in these retail functions, and people working in these areas will be required to actively lead tech deployment.
He also said automation or artificial intelligence (AI) best practice in retail will see machines applying general processing rules, but people on hand to intervene to make more specific commercial decisions when needed.
“In ten years from now, we might see emerging players in retail never having merchandisers or buyers in the traditional way, and brand management that is done entirely by two or three individuals and the rest by social media-driven content,” says Allen.
Potential retail job 2: chief alignment officer
With so much change and evolution at pace expected, it may be beyond the traditional senior retail team’s capability to oversee it all. In IT, it’s not uncommon for retailers to recruit interim heads of business change – as they move from one e-commerce platform to another or embark on ERP overhaul.
There are many that take on project-based semi-permanent roles, such as David Spittle, who has just finished a 26-month tenure at women’s clothing retailer Bonmarche, where he oversaw a tech-led transformation programme. But with new channels emerging all the time and so much integration required between disparate systems and divisions, retailers might look to make these type of jobs full-time positions.
Kristine Kirby, managing director of digital at Pragma Consulting, says: “Job titles that may exist could be chief alignment officer, to ensure all areas of a business are working together, or head of customer, whose entire job is to consistently look at things from the customer viewpoint, and not from the brand’s.”
“Further ahead you could have a virtual space designer, who will spend their days working in virtual reality environments to ensure that the best customer experience is not a one-off, but an evolving role,” she says.
Potential retail job 3: head of holograms
Abbott says his chats with clients regularly revolve around machine learning and data science and their impact on retail. And with personalised customer experiences and new in-store technology high on retail’s agenda, this could impact jobs roles in the future. “The kind of jobs that I see could be around AI, robotics, and augmented reality,” he says.
The views of Andrew Busby, founder of the Retail Reflections consultancy and an experienced retail technology professional, match Abbott’s in many ways, but he suggests retailers will need to look at – and in some instances help develop – a new pool of talent for these jobs of the future.
“In retail and, specifically, the supply chain, we’re seeing a lot of automation, and I can envisage some of the job titles will have ‘hologram’ in them,” he says.
“Head of hologram services, or anything to do with robotics. Importantly, though, people who have got these skills – including in areas such as augmented and virtual reality development – will be very much in demand. The target pool is the top end of Generation Z because they’ve innately got the right perspective and viewpoint.”
Busby also predicts there will be more chief or head of AI job titles emerging in retail. Indeed, online marketplace eBay recently recruited Jan Pederson from Twitter as chief scientist for AI, but the talent pool for these types of roles is currently low across the globe.
Retail faces an additional challenge, according to Busby. “I firmly believe that retail does a poor job at promoting itself as a viable career.
“Apart from a few isolated incidences, I don’t see too much effort being made to appeal to Generation Z. School leavers and graduates see retail as something that’s useful when leaving school or when at university, but as we know it’s different to that – and it’s changing as well.”
Potential retail job 4: virtual currency treasury manager
Very few retailers – the list includes Walmart in the US and Lush Cosmetics based in the UK – have publicly spoken about exploring Bitcoin and blockchain’s potential. But interest in cryptocurrency and cryptography is gathering pace globally, and there are estimates the value of the cryptocurrency market will double in 2018.
If it takes hold in retail, there could be job roles such as “virtual currency treasury manager” or “cryptocurrency mining power manager”, according to Kieron Smith, digital director of bookseller Blackwell’s.
Presenting the possibility of innovation contributing to either a utopian or dystopian future, he also listed a range of potential jobs accordingly, including the utopian “drone flight controller, interplanetary flight officer, or bio-tech HR manager” and, in the case of a more dystopian world, “data leak manager, anti-drone perimeter manager and robot fleet manager”.
“We still get to shape the future, which should be fun,” he says.
Potential retail job 5: freelance hackers
Telecoms business Vodafone named Stefano Gastaut as its internet of things (IoT) global director in January 2018, but whether this role crops up in traditional retail remains to be seen.
IoT has been a buzz-phrase in retail for some time now, and roles are often created in retail based on such developments. The precedent has been set by the raft of omni-channel director and head of multi-channel roles created in recent times.
“I’ve had people ask me if we will have an IoT chief – I say ‘no’, as the technology is a tool,” says Kirby. “But if you want a job that you probably would really think is slightly out there, freelance hackers or biohackers are the other big jobs that stand out. They will help scientists and others in health fields hack to create better products that deliver tangible results that make all of our lives better.”
There can never be certainty in the predictions made, and there will be some jobs introduced that will disappear in the smoke of the next fad going up in flames, but as Kirby puts it: “Overall, it’s impossible to say where retail will be in 15 years.
“There are titles I never thought I would hear, such as chief customer officer, director of customer success and chief digital officer. I could list a raft of them that have come and gone. The only thing I can say for sure is that regardless of the job or title, everything will have an element of digital in it.”