Shopping for SAP and project skills

Tight delivery schedules and thin margins are forcing retailers to get more from their technology, driving demand for ERP and business analysis expertise

It has been a busy year in retail IT. The combination of thin margins, fickle customers and tight delivery schedules is forcing retailers to get more out of their businesses with technology. And that has had a knock-on effect on recruitment.

Chip and Pin projects dominated retail last year as companies worked to meet the banks' deadline for implementation, but now the attention has shifted.

"We have been through the chip and Pin installation cycle. Now, the focus is on SAP," said Adam Stokes, operations manager at recruitment website the IT Job Board.

Although Oracle strengthened its offering with the acquisition of retail technology specialist Retek last year, SAP holds the dominant position in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in the UK retail IT market and most of the larger retailers are recruiting people with SAP skills.

"SAP is very hot, that is for sure," said Steve Dargan, director of the technology division at Imprint Search & Selection.

As well as SAP specialists, there is demand for architects, project leaders and business analysts.

"Retailers are looking for project managers, programme managers and strategy people," said Emma Whittle, senior consultant at Michael Page Technology. "You need to be a person who can get into a business and understand those issues."

The increased demand for people in jobs such as project management means retailers are beginning to offer competitive deals. For example, Dargan said, "With one candidate, one of our telco clients lost out to retail. It was something that they could not understand. We told them what the package was and then they understood. The skills the candidate had were very specific, and he got a signing-on bonus."

For most, however, pay remains only par for the course and certainly lower than the salary leader: the finance industry.

Joshua Hanson, recruitment retail specialist at Harvey Nash, said, "Salaries in IT retail tend to be lower than in other sectors as it is a tight market operating on low margins."

However, Richard Chorley, associate director at Computer People, said, "You may not be paid more, but you have the benefits to consider. Many of the retailers are able to put together good benefits packages."

A key benefit is the staff discount. "The retailers often stress the discounts that they offer staff - they tend to be very good," said Stokes.

"Free shopping at the weekend - it helps, doesn't it?" said Dargan. "But, in the main, they are not going to compete on salary, unlike the telcos or the investment community."

The attraction for IT people is that retail's reliance on technology has made it an environment where projects keep on coming.

"It is a fast-moving dynamic environment with a good brand name behind it," said Chorley.

Experience counts

Retailers are looking to recruit more from outside their sector, particularly for in-demand skills such as SAP. But retail experience remains important. "Employers often specify retail experience, whether web scripters or database developers," said Adam Stokes, operations manager at the IT Job Board.

The focus on technologies peculiar to retail, such as electronic point of sale systems, is important, said Jane Kimberlin, IT director at Domino's Pizza. "Retail can be hard to break into because you have to know that side," she said. "You have to learn about it, but it is possible for people to do that."

The preference for people with retail experience is driving big pay differentials, said Emma Whittle, senior consultant at recruitment firm Michael Page Technology. "Where people have more of a retail focus they will be able to demand more as a permanent or a contract person. You are talking £10,000 bonuses on the salaries of permanent staff at the higher end if they have extensive retail experience," she said.


The retail buzz

For Jane Kimberlin, IT director at Domino's Pizza, retail IT is all about the buzz. But it is not for everyone, she warned.

Kimberlin has spent much of her 25-year career in retail IT. Before joining Domino's earlier this year, she worked for drinks and hotel group Scottish & Newcastle.

The attraction of retail is clear. "It is very buzzy, very fast-paced. There are lots of deadlines and you can't miss them. And it is an area that everyone will relate to," she said.

In retail, many deadlines are tied to seasonal holidays and big sporting or entertainment events. Pushing back a project will not work. Kimberlin said people who are focused more on the minutiae of planning and ensuring that every detail is implemented probably will not enjoy the retail IT environment. It is better to have something "good enough" that hits the deadline, she said.

Retail often offers the chance to look at new technologies as they come along to see if they fit the business. "Sometimes we are at the cutting edge, talking to technology suppliers to see if they can do something if it is not already available," said Kimberlin.

She underlined the creativity that lies behind many IT projects in the sector. "IT is very much engaged with the marketing people - coming up with ideas jointly."

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