The days when retail relied exclusively on legacy IT are gone, and the sector offers opportunities to spearhead roll-outs of cutting-edge technology
Retail has traditionally been a relatively unattractive sector for IT professionals, with low investment in technology.
"Some retailers are still running AS/400-based systems developed 15 years ago," says Iain McKeand, head of the regional CIO practice at Harvey Nash, who spends much of his time recruiting for senior roles in the retail sector.
But things are changing. "Retailers are realising they need to raise spending on IT from less than 1% of turnover to between 1% and 2%.
"Those legacy systems may have been robust in the past, but they cannot cope with supporting the move to multiple channels," says McKeand.
IT skills in demand in retail
Much of the activity in the sector is being driven by developments in online channels, but web skills form only a small part of the demand for IT professionals in retail.
"Using the internet as a route to market means retailers have to invest in a wide range of technologies that enable a better and quicker customer experience," McKeand says.
These technologies include supply chain, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other back-office packages, infrastructure, networks, security and telephony.
Sagar Vadher's experiences as head of IT at online retailer I Want One of Those (IWOOT.com) are typical. He recently completed a project to set up a warehouse system for the company, and previously rolled out an ERP system based on open source technology in just three months.
He also manages the telephony for IWOOT.com's call centre, as well as ensuring the most visible aspect of the company, its websites, is running.
But his experiences are not entirely typical. Whereas Vadher has used open source systems, Jane Binner, an associate director with recruiters Computer People, says that the retail sector runs mainly on Microsoft technologies such as ASP., C# and in some cases Visual Basic.
Breaking into retail can be tricky because retailers prefer to hire IT staff with retail experience.
"They can identify with the issues customers and store managers have. They understand what competitors are doing, and where the sector as a whole is going in the next six months," Binner says.
Value of interpersonal skills
McKeand says that, at many retailers, new recruits spend some of their induction period working in stores, either behind the counter or in the stockroom. Some retailers go further and will ask IT candidates, particularly for senior roles, to work in store as part of the selection process, with the evaluation of the store manager performing part of the assessment.
"That reflects the importance placed in good interpersonal and stakeholder skills," McKeand says.
Although it is rare, he has known a candidate to be rejected in part because of negative feedback from the store manager.
However, Vadher is evidence that the people can get hired with limited retail experience. Prior to joining IWOOT.com, his only retail experience was a stint as a business analyst at Lastminute.com.
He brought a background in a broad range of technologies and disciplines that retailers need, including infrastructure management, project management, call centre operations and enterprise website design.
"IWOOT.com was looking for someone who could deliver and deliver quickly. My first task was to build a more sustainable and scalable front-end for the company. Retail is very results driven, and I had worked in those kinds of environments before," Vadher says.
Binner agrees. "[In retail] you need to be self-sufficient, able to make decisions quickly, and thrive in a pressurised environment. Every minute an online shopping site is down, the company is losing money," she says.
She says you also have to be comfortable finding a "good enough" fix, rather than a perfect one.
Hours can also be long. "Retail inevitably demands working outside normal nine-to-five hours, especially if the retailer is a seven-day operation," McKeand says.
Vadher says that there are often extra seasonal pressures. "Christmas is the hardest part of the year and is quite stressful. We get a lot of stick from the rest of the business at any time of year when there are IT problems," he says.
Salaries in the retail sector also tend to be lower than some equally high pressure sectors such as finance, although McKeand says salaries are still attractive.
"Business analysts with three to five years experience will earn a base salary of £50,000 to £60,000 in the southeast, while IT directors in retail can expect between £80,000 and £110,000," he says.
Technology on the cutting-edge
But Binner says there are compensations. "People are attracted to retail because the sector is using cutting-edge technologies in a forever-changing environment in which no two days are ever the same.
"New and exciting projects come up on a regular basis, and the trend for retailers to diversify means each project can be very different from the previous one, giving you a chance to get lots of experience," she says.
Another benefit is that the variety of companies within the retail sector - such as multinational grocery chains, high-street outlets and niche outlets - means there are plenty of career paths and opportunities within IT.
"You can move to a similar role in a retailer twice the size or with a more complex or fast-moving product range, or you can step up to a more senior role with more responsibility and greater strategic input in a company with a fraction of the turnover of your previous employer," McKeand says.
However, McKeand warns that comparatively few technologists are able to cross over into non-IT roles in the retail sector.