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New professional roles in retail: Finding and creating the perfect fit

Rebecca Moy
Moderator and panelists at Nextail Live in Barcelona
Panelists and retail experts: Carlos Costa (Mango, BCG), Luis Lara (Retalent), and Emma Giner (People & Organization Shaker), led by moderator Christian de Angelis (Modaes).

On November 6th, we held another edition of Nextail Live, our first one in Barcelona. The focus of the event was the new and nontraditional professional profiles that are joining the ranks to spark change and innovation in retail. 

Below are the major takeaways and unique insights that we gathered from the conversation with our expert panelists.

Tools, tech, and data galore, but not without the people

As retailers, we spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about how to meet today’s unique challenges. Usually, this gets us talking about digital transformation through tech and innovation. But what about the people? 

After all, it’s the human resources in retail that will trigger or reject transformation no matter how many tools you give them.

When calculating the ideal combination of tools and data to carry out change, it’s the people and processes that outweigh any of the other components. In fact, there’s no equation at all if we leave them out. 

But who are these new fashion joiners and how are they changing the retail organizations? 

New faces around the office 

Digital transformation is not throwing a bunch of technology into a retail organization and expecting it to work. Digital transformation is enabling data-forwardness and customer centricity by making investments in the right tech and talent to make innovation possible.

We see these new faces and processes appearing in both central offices and physical stores within retailers’ chains.

The numbers people

Luis Lara said, “Digitalization is creating a tremendous need for new profiles in fashion that have a digital-first mentality and who understand how to reach customers on their digital journey both online and in store.”

Luis Lara
“Digitalization is creating a tremendous need for new profiles in fashion that have a digital-first mentality.”

These new professionals include the likes of software developers, data scientists, digital officers, insights and machine learning specialists, and other analytical minds.

Mercaux found that 100% of surveyed retailers believe their organizations need to become more analytical, so it’s no wonder tech jobs are the fastest growing jobs in retail.

Chart of percentage of sales and technology roles in retail
Courtesy of SHRM

Retailers are recruiting these professionals to carry out innovation projects (e-commerce, omnichannel fulfillment, digitally-enabled supply chain logistics, etc.) and get actionable insights from unstructured customer data they collect but weren’t able to process until now. 

Emma Giner stated, “The value chain has completely changed. It’s not time-to-market, the product, the price, or the promotional event that’s making brands succeed, it’s the data. The winners are the ones that do the magic of collecting it, converting it into an insight or idea, and turning it right into operations.

The people people

That doesn’t mean, however, that sales roles are of diminishing importance. Instead of merely transactional sales interactions, store staff must be more than just sellers, and retailers are changing their in-store staffing strategy in kind.

As advanced technology like AI frees up store staff from operational and manual tasks, they can focus on the immediate, personalized, and human aspect of in-store retailing experience, which in the end will be the only remaining “human” channel.

Capgemini reports that the demand for emotional intelligence skills will rise six times on average in the next three to five years due to AI initiatives. 

Emma Giner
“It’s the human interaction, the experience – what we add as people.”

“You might find someone who’s an amazing stylist but who’s bad with people. It’s important to find people who share the brand’s values and are good with people to be your brand ambassador. What does the store offer that’s going to get customers to turn off the Netflix and get off the couch? It’s the human interaction, the experience – what we add as people,” stated Emma Gimer.

Whether this means hiring a new type of profile or reskilling those that are already deployed, in-store staffing will look a lot different than it used to.

Culture: Fitting in or make to fit?

Onboarding new profiles in retail is unfortunately a lot harder than publishing a job offer and waiting for highly-qualified candidates to come running. 

You might decide you need 20 data analysts and 5 data scientists, but by the time you’ve hired three, two have walked out the door.              – Carlos Costa

Last year, Alvanon found that 62% of surveyed retail organizations are struggling to fill new, digital roles. And if they do join the company, how do we ensure that these likely Gen-Z and Millennial employees will stick around? Business of Fashion already reports that 90% of Millennials expect to stay at a job for three years or less.

According to Carlos Costa, “It’s not only hard to attract and hire this talent, but also to retain them. You might decide you need 20 data analysts and 5 data scientists, but by the time you’ve hired three, two have walked out the door.”

Carlos Costa
“It’s not only hard to attract and hire this talent, but also to retain them.”

In large part, it boils down to company culture. Retailers need to pay close attention to employer branding strategies to attract them and preparing the company culture to receive them. 

Co-creating a new status quo

Emma Giner reminded us that we currently have four different generations working together in companies at once. They differ not only in age, but also in terms of standard procedures, best practices, and technological capabilities. It’s vital to find ways to collaborate that work for everyone. 

That’s what’s great about it…we’re learning from each other. We’re creating a new status quo together.  – Emma Giner

For more “analogue” traditional retailers, the expectations – or better yet, requirements – of a new, techier staff might come as a surprise. 

“You’re dealing with a new type of person. Most retail HQs are located outside of city centers, and you’re trying to attract people who want to take electric scooters to work and expect to be able to work from home or elsewhere. To get them and keep them, you have to reconfigure the whole company. But that’s what’s great about it, they’re teaching us and we’re learning from each other. We’re creating a new status quo together,” she said.

For example, facing similar challenges, UK retailer River Island opened a digital office specifically for innovation and development in popular neighborhood Shoreditch, bringing the retailer closer to the people they want to hire.

Emma Giner Nextail Live
“We’re creating a new status quo together.”

But there’s still work to do. While Business of Fashion found that Gen-Z and Millennials both place an emphasis on flexible working conditions, 43% disagree or strongly disagree that their fashion company employers are committed to offering them.

If you’re going to talk the talk, you’ll have to walk the walk. While the perks of remote work and other benefits are great, they shouldn’t just be masking a traditional, inflexible structure. 

Prioritizing more horizontal communication and interaction

Just because many new retail professionals are highly-skilled workers, it doesn’t mean they necessarily know much about retail. They’ll also need training and the ability to work across teams to understand the workings of fashion in order to use data to create meaningful insights.

Retail organizations will have to start prioritizing flatter internal communication and interaction among departments, central office, and stores. Not only will new cross-functional staff will need it, but also because new, data democratizing tech is forcing the communication floodgates open. 

“If you start silohing people off into departments and create the traditional gap between central office and the stores, it’s impossible to work together and share in a way that makes sense,” Emma Giner continues, “Sometimes it’s just about sitting down and talking to others about what they do. So it’s about sharing, not creating a pyramid.”

Prepping the business for new joiners

To ensure that transformation investments succeed, retailers have the dual task of both providing newcomers a soft landing and ensuring buy-in from current employees. 

This might be a challenge for employees who have become embedded in legacy tools, systems, and organizational cultures and/or for those in the more “creative” side of the business, such as designers and buyers who tend to apply more intuitive-based strategies.

What can retail organizations do for their own people to facilitate a smoother transition, create buy in, and retain them?  

1. Involve them from the beginning

Just as agile processes dictate, when strategy is far removed from future end users, there can be major friction when it’s time to get to business.

Luis Lara said, “If you don’t prioritize digital-first thinking within your culture by involving users from the beginning, it will be hard work to convince them that it’s for their own good, which can actually work against you.”

Luis Lara
“If you don’t prioritize digital-first thinking within your culture by involving users from the beginning, it…can actually work against you.”

And this isn’t just a case of generational differences, but also about the different areas of the business that will also be affected by transformation.

Specifically in the case of fashion creatives, Carlos Costa said, “Creatives should be involved from the beginning when looking at proposals and doing testing. New retail tech is giving people feedback they’ve never had before. If they understand their value, they’ll appreciate it because they also want the business to be successful.” 

By listening to the needs of internal stakeholders and involving them in the decision-making and testing, retail organizations can better ensure that they’re making the right digital investments and that they’ll actually be adopted.

2. Train them on digital and on leadership

Imagine going through all the trouble of bringing in new digital staff and processes just to watch them fall by the wayside because no one knows how to use them.

“Technology is making it easier than ever to innovate…in just four to five months you can get your algorithm up and running with data and everything. But sometimes people aren’t trained well to use it so they don’t,” said Carlos Costa.

Setting up training and even internal academies is vital, especially when dealing with mid-level career staff who may feel threatened by new tech and their digital-natives co-workers.

Carlos Costa at Nextail Live
“There are new people coming in and changing the way they’ve always done things, and that’s hard.”

Carlos Costa continued, “They may have their email and know how to use WhatsApp, but aside from that, it may really take a considerable effort on their part to use the new tools they’re expected to use. There are new people coming in and changing the way they’ve always done things, and that’s hard.”

On the other hand, while some “old-school” employees lack in digital prowess, they likely make up for in industry experience. 

“The challenge is to help raise these people up into leadership positions,” said Costa, “These people do have knowledge, because when you’re only 25, you’ve never lived through two economic crises or times of uncertainty like they have. So operationally, they have useful information. The question is, how do we help them become effective leaders?”

According to the Business of Fashion, a traditional top-down management style is less effective with this younger workforce who responds better to coaching or mentorship management style. 

Providing opportunities for training to develop multi-faceted managers is a great way for retail organizations to empower current employees and help them evolve and continue developing professionally. 

3. Incentivize them correctly

Digital technology and the processes they enable are changing traditional in-store success metrics. Are we doing enough to ensure that we’re basing success and compensating on the right criteria? 

Luis Lara added, “Store staff will have to be much more informed, be given much more technology, and be much better paid than before. If not, we’ll still be dealing with relationships that are purely transactional. We will need to see a rise in ‘supersellers’.”

We will need to see a rise in “supersellers”.             – Luis Lara

Since the nature of in-store staff has long been a part-time, hourly, and often seasonal, it is already susceptible to high turnover. Correctly compensating staff will not only retain them for longer, but perhaps change the traditional configuration of sales staff for a more long-term, specialized profession.

Emma Giner said, “The newer someone is, the less loyal, productive, and motivated they are. We measure sales and other data, but what about the ROI in people? By comparing sales and people data, you can see the positive impact they have.”

In physical locations, experience per square meter is replacing those of sales. As previously mentioned, today’s new “supersellers” will be expected to do much more than stand behind a cash register.  For true brand ambassadors, these “internal customers” must feel both identified with the vision of the brand and adequately but also evaluated and compensated appropriately. 

A people transformation

Digital transformation gets all the attention, but what would it be without the people? New professional profiles are altering the traditional, more “analogue” retail landscape, but industry veterans also play a key role in making way for change.

It’s up to retail organizations to invest in both if they want to fully enable transformation in their companies.

“You have to create opportunities for people to share with each other. What better business for fashion than that?” – Carlos Costa.

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