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Retail tech training – an opportunity to drive employee retention?

A job in retail is often the first employment many people will have, so could technology training increase the retention of store staff?

As technology continues to disrupt the retail industry, retailers need to find employees with the right skills to service every channel in their business, from in-store to online.

But a retail store position is often first job many people have and the staff turnover rate can be very high, which means retailers need to find and train even more people to fill increasingly tech-focused roles.

During a panel discussion at the 2017 NRF Big Show in New York, Terry J Lundgren, chairman and CEO of US retailer Macy’s, said continual training would help to close the skills gap and ensure employees saw more of a future in their role.

Lundgren said that because it was often more difficult to retain store staff than those higher up in an organisation, continual training for retail employees would not only provide skilled workers, but also meant they were more likely to stay with the firm.

He said younger people were “looking for that direction – they’re looking for those particular skills to be added”.

Lundgren described how Macy’s had used training programmes in various parts of the business to focus on developing and retaining digital talent, including about 600 technologists who could go on to make decisions such as how and when to utilise cloud technologies in the business.

Macy’s also has a leadership programme that not only ensures that employees are more likely to stay, but also creates a culture that people are interesting in joining.

Lundgren said: “That training process has to take place too. It’s not just bringing them in – it’s continued training.”

Employers often complain that graduates are leaving university without the skills needed to fill technology roles.

But Macy’s works with a select group of universities to encourage students to pursue a retail technology career, and collaborates with course directors to make sure students leave with the skills that retailers need.

“The whole focus is changing in terms of the curriculum and what skills they will need for the industry,” said Lundgren.

Adapting for modern talent  

But although technology is disrupting the retail sector, and the skills that are needed to work in retail, there are some fundamentals that will never change.

Lundgren described the “balance of skills” needed for store workers, and once an organisation has attracted talented staff, it can use these people to attract, train and retain others.

With a growing emphasis on customer experience, store employees increasingly need to combine social skills with technology to keep customers interested. Miya Knights, head of global retail technology practice at Planet Retail, told Computer Weekly that engaging staff who are well-trained in store tech can help to bridge the gap between online and offline.

“Used wisely, tech certainly has the potential to upskill and empower store staff, and so combat the high rates of attrition commonly associated with retail workforces,” said Knights. “Tech can also help ‘save the sale’, increase conversion and even allow a staff member to offer tailored deals to individual shoppers.”

A national lack of digital skills is estimated to be costing the UK economy £63bn a year and is preventing people from progressing in the modern working world.

The skillsets to grow

Kip Tindell, chairman of the National Retail Federation and co-founder and chair at The Container Store, told the NRF audience that retailers should focus not only on getting people into the retail industry, but “giving people the skillsets to grow in this industry” – an area where technology could help to bridge the gap.

“We need those who have the skills to navigate rapid tech disruption,” said Tindell. “No other industry has so many chances to touch people’s daily lives or provide digital tools for a real world experience.”

As technology continues to disrupt all industries, the need for basic digital skills is becoming necessary in any role, which is especially true of retail positions in view of the increase in omni-channel offerings for retail businesses.

Spencer Izard, chief analyst for enterprise ICT at Ovum, told Computer Weekly that retailers are more focused on how technology is impacting store staff and how best to find recruits with digital knowledge.

Izard believes equipping sales staff with data-driven smart devices, for example, could give them more of an idea what a tech role involves and how it solves real-world problems.

“Technology has an opportunity to inspire non-IT employees within a retailer and support their areas of interest, which could encourage them to want a longer career with a retailer,” said Izard. “I believe the use of analytics, surfaced through business user-friendly interfaces, across all operational aspects of retailing, will provide new sources of inspiration and engagement for employees that retailers need to recognise and retain.”

Better understanding

Retail has a tendency to attract younger workers who have a better understanding of how brands should use social media to attract customers, and Izard said many common paths into careers such as marketing and merchandising could be disrupted by increased use of retailer tech.

Many firms are now using technology to upskill staff and coach them to take on other roles in the business.

But until retailers change the way they train and develop staff, store workers may still continue to drop out of roles rather than progress.

Bill Brand, president of the Home Shopping Network, said at NRF 2017 that retailers should be looking at training regardless of an employee’s level in the organisation.

“Regardless of your position in your company, we have to build a robust pipeline of talent,” he said.

As technology disrupts every sector and people’s way of working, said Brand, retailers should experiment with new training and hiring methods to attract people who “never really thought retail was for them”.

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To encourage more upskilling and education in the retail space, the NRF Foundation has announced the launch of an industry-backed programme called RiseUp, which is designed to distribute skills to everyone hoping to enter the retail industry.

As part of the announcement, Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart US, said retailers should aim for “simplicity” in their training schemes to combat the complexity inflicted on them by omni-channel retail.

Walmart runs academies in the US to create entry-level programmes and career pathways, teaching its employees skills that will span the business.

Foran said: “We are seeing pretty significant change. Whether it is changes in our customers and the way they’re behaving, or whether it is new competitors, we all recognise that to ensure success in the future, you have to look at what you’re doing every day, day to day.”

Foran said the need for skills will come and go as technology disrupts the industry, so to stay ahead of their competitors, brands must focus on obtaining, training and retaining talent and, most importantly, adapt quickly.

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