How Sainsbury’s is developing a wider understanding of data science

Data is of increasing importance to retailers when it comes to dealing with needy customers. Sainsbury’s supermarket is developing its data talent to optimise its opportunities

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Using data science at Sainsbury’s

Retailers have been collecting data since what seems like the dawn of time, but only recently have they begun to discover what they can do with it.

As customers’ demands continue to rise, an understanding of their behaviour through collected data is now vital to retailers.

Sainsbury’s has been tackling this in partnership with solutions provider Alteryx. The supermarket is focusing on aspects of data analytics – such as Argos sales or insights into sales data by location – to develop relevant databases, applications and reporting capabilities to help the business make better decisions.

But Samantha Hughes, analytical systems developer at the supermarket, says a focus on developing data talent will be important for both Sainsbury’s as a retailer and the retail industry as a whole in the future.

To help it make decisions across the business, the retailer uses a lot of data, as well as a lot of inputs and resources, such as customer data, data from its Nectar loyalty programme, web-scraping data and open source data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

A wider view

Sainsbury’s is working on growing the data skills among its employees in partnership with Alteryx. It encourages data scientists and analysts to work with teams in other disciplines to develop a greater understanding of the data and what it can be used for throughout the business.

Hughes’ team, in particular, is responsible for using data to make sure the right locations are selected for new stores and to measure the performance of existing stores to see if they are meeting expectations.

Being a small team has its advantages, such as the ability to be agile and quickly turn around projects or to find the data needed to make decisions, such as where to build new stores. This could be through the provision of data visualisation to make findings easier to interpret, or something as simple as making sure members of other teams are not bombarded by data they don’t need.

“[We use Alteryx] to give user-friendly tools to people who are not coders, developers or data scientists”

Samantha Hughes, Sainsbury’s

“There are a number of people who struggle with data numeracy, and I do feel that a basic grounding of data numeracy and spatial aspects is important,” says Hughes.

This lack of data knowledge is a problem, she adds. Understanding concepts such as point in polygon, data modelling or databases will help people within a business make better decisions with the output they see.

But these skills are rarely being taught outside of organisations themselves, as the computing curriculum in the education sector struggles to stay up to date with emerging or more complex concepts.  

Hughes uses her own daughter as an example. “She’s learning Python, but it’s just sort of around the very basics of coding,” she says. “I don’t see where she’s using any data handling techniques.”

Some have also argued the computing curriculum gives children a narrow view of technology concepts, leaving them unprepared of some of the things they may have to learn for future roles, such as supercomputing.

Hughes says a lot needs to be done to develop young people’s data skills so they are appropriate for the modern workplace, coupled with ensuring they are aware of the opportunities that exist in the data landscape – both of which are developments Hughes says need to happen at an earlier stage in education.

Win-win partnership

To try to fill these knowledge gaps, Sainsbury’s has been partnering with universities to make people aware of the different roles available in data, as well as expand its own data talent through internal education, and hiring interns and sandwich placement students.

This enables Sainsbury’s to “grow in-house”, says Hughes, and teach those at an earlier stage in the pipeline what opportunities there could be, as well as what skills they will need to achieve them.

For those already in Sainsbury’s, Hughes says: “I introduce them to Alteryx and put them on the training course we’ve got, because I think taking away the coding makes it less scary.”

There is a huge emphasis on coding in the UK’s computing curriculum, but less of a focus on other roles, such as those in automation, artificial intelligence (AI) or design.

To keep up with such changes in industry, she says: “If you don’t have some adaptability you’re going to miss out.”

Hughes’ team has been using Alteryx to introduce people within the business to concepts such as spatial and R, without overwhelming them, by developing tools with Alteryx that they can use to do their role more efficiently.

She says this often “plants a seed” which leads to people asking what else they can use the technology for. “It puts a smile on your face,” she says. “[We can use Alteryx to] build those tools and give user-friendly tools to people who are not coders, developers or data scientists.”

Sainsbury’s is not the only retailer working on developing a more tech-savvy workforce, with M&S also launching a programme to teach its staff more about data, and NatWest opening an academy to help its employees understand data usage.

All-inclusive mindset

But these technical aspects of roles can often put people off IT roles, something that has been said to be especially true of young girls.

While Hughes works in a very technical team with a male boss, she says about a third of the team are women, and the retailer works hard on ensuring there is no gender bias. “We do encourage that not only is [diversity] about the gender, but it’s about race and disability as well,” she adds.

Hughes is also an advocate for those with hearing loss, and tries to raise awareness of disability and deafness in the workplace.

During Deaf Awareness Week, she charged her team during a morning huddle with putting an emphasis on the difficulties faced by those with hearing loss, and for the rest of the week the team engaged in activities, such as putting cotton wool in their ears, to try to understand what it’s like to navigate the workplace with hearing issues.

“[We need] to raise the bar and introduce people to the concept that an ageing workforce means that hearing is always going to be an issue,” Hughes says. “When we’re hiring, disability should be treated just as equal as gender or race.”

The inclusive nature of the retailer makes it a great place to work, she says, joking: “Keep an eye on Sainsbury’s Careers, because we will have roles coming up in the near future in our team.”

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