Retailers push to onboard tech talent

Discussion
Photo: The Home Depot
Apr 05, 2018

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from COLLOQUY, provider of loyalty-marketing publishing, education and research since 1990.

At the Kroger Co., headhunters are going bananas for technology majors.

So are talent seekers at Nordstrom, Best Buy, Home Depot and others. Traditional retail positions, such as cashiers, are increasingly being shelved as major brands reduce store numbers and invest in digital integration. And with that shift comes an escalating demand for the technology talent to lead their efforts.

Yet a sampling of retailers investing in technology positions hints that many may be trying to catch up after not recognizing the need soon enough:

  • Kroger in January said it is actively recruiting experienced digital and technology talent both in its corporate offices and in its stores to drive its Restock Kroger program.
  • Nordstrom posted openings for nearly 30 technology positions in January alone. Opportunities included data engineers, software engineers and omnichannel inventory managers.
  • The Home Depot has dedicated a webpage to attracting technology candidates, highlighting career opportunities in seven areas, including mobile, data analytics, online merchandising and user experience.

The positions these brands and others advertise come under various titles, but can be broken down into three broad categories:

  • Customer experience leaders: Omnichannel marketing has generated the need to produce an indulgent, brand-specific experience that is consistent regardless of channel. Doing so typically requires aligning company-wide strategies, processes and technologies to the fast-changing needs
  • Data analysts: Companies in 2018 will need roughly 180,000 people with deep analytical skill, with an additional 900,000 or so jobs that will require data management and interpretation skills, according to predictions by International Data Corporation. At retail, expect a good number of these positions to be in the form of customer analytics — dissecting shopper data to identify predictive behaviors, pain points and paths to purchase.
  • Software developers: All those mobile-ordered shoes and razors are supporting a growing legion of IT professionals, digital marketers and software developers.

The challenge, for traditional retailers, is adapting the technology fast enough to win the best talent — and finding the right talent to adapt it. Another hurdle is capturing the interest of unknowing college graduates enamored with digital, more youthful-seeming brands.

However, regardless of the degree to which technology changes careers, the most valued quality among workers will not change. That is the ability to empathize with consumers and troubleshoot their needs. Software can help build machine intelligence, but when it comes to delivering memorable interactions, shoppers still tend to prefer humanity.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are many retailers simply behind the curve in seeking out tech talent or do they face huge obstacles attracting tech talent versus other industries? Which skillsets do you see as most important?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"If retailers can meet tech giants in terms of competitive salaries and benefits, they should have no issues attracting great talent."
"What retailers should have by now is a huge database of customer shopping data. They need the talent to be able to mine that data in a usable way..."
"Traditional retailers are having to become software companies in order to compete."

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19 Comments on "Retailers push to onboard tech talent"


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Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

Yes, and yes. Retailers are behind the curve (except in e-commerce) because for the most part it has been about maintaining aging systems rather than investing in modern technology. And yes, I think they do face challenges attracting talent, because they will get out-bid — I mean, retailers have wanted and have been looking for data scientists forever, but have chosen not to pay market rates (competing with the likes of investment banking firms) to get them.

From my corner of the world, there seems to be a big push towards investing in microservices. That’s not so much new tech skills or development languages, but it is definitely a new way of thinking. I actually think it will be harder for existing tech resources to change than it will be to find new resources capable of delivering on this latest round of tech strategy and architecture.

Jennifer McDermott
Guest

Hardly, I think retail presents one of the biggest opportunities for technology majors. Being at the forefront of the retail industry’s tech-evolution presents an opportunity to build and implement something completely new. If retailers can meet tech giants in terms of competitive salaries and benefits, they should have no issues attracting great talent.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

“If retailers can meet tech giants in terms of competitive salaries and benefits, they should have no issues attracting great talent.” But will they? I believe there is a huge lack of appreciation by many retailers for how technology is necessary to connect with customers today.

Phil Masiello
Guest

What retailers should have by now is a huge database of customer shopping data. That data is valuable to build customer retention, build average sale and continuously enhance the shopper experience.

Retailers need the talent to be able to mine that data in a usable way and share it across the organization so users can make it actionable data.

When you look at companies like Amazon, Walmart and Google, who have been using data to understand users and are now using that information to migrate into advanced AI initiatives, it is clear that most retailers are way behind the curve.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

The question is a little like asking: “Are retailers in the software development and technology business, or are they in the business of buying and selling products?” It is conceivable that the retailers that are so actively recruiting are doing so because they are developing their own solutions and feel that this is a must because what they want is not commercially available yet, and so they rush to beat their competition by staffing and developing. The inevitable situation arises that, eventually, the commercial technology marketplace is able to develop faster, for more customers, and stay abreast of the evolving technology in a way that is very difficult for a few retail businesses to do, and impossible for most. There are voices for both camps.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

On one level, I agree with you. I’m concerned about that too, that retailers should not be reinventing the internet in order to feel like they are offering something “differentiating.” We’ve all seen that mentality play out to the harm of retail more than once.

On the other hand, though, can you even sell a product today without technology? Heck, my mom is an Etsy seller who has stopped going to local craft shows, because she makes more money online with less work. So you kind of have to be a technology company to be in retail today. And it’s that transformation — from buying and selling goods to “enabling experiences” (usually on some kind of technology platform) — that is disrupting the industry. If all you value is buying and selling products, you’re playing the wrong game in retail today.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

I think we are not on opposites of the camp here. The fine distinction I make is between hiring many technologists to build one’s own, or buying the technology and using it. We clearly agree that the retail industry can not ignore or forego the use of technology. My concern is, and has been, employing tons of people to develop what technology the commercial marketplace also can develop; possibly cheaper and of a longer life.

Art Suriano
Guest
I see many retailers making a colossal mistake in that they are investing heavily in technology an ignoring some of the basic needs at store level like a well-trained staff. That is costing them sales, and I don’t mean a few. There is a competition today with too many retailers chasing after technology, much of which is still not fully developed or proven that the customer will want it. We see today the downturn of social media because there is too much of everything and Millennials are getting bored. How many apps are out there and how many ways can technology impress a customer? I’m not saying retailers don’t need to be on top of what is important and make sure they have the technology necessary to remain competitive in today’s business world. But what makes the in-store experience is well trained, friendly store associates that know how to “wow” the customer. No app, no kiosk and no robot to-date can do that. So as the retailer who ignores this continues to lose sales, watch… Read more »
Max Goldberg
Guest

Most retailers are behind the tech curve and it’s not going to get better. Retail is not viewed as being sexy. It’s not a springboard for techies into better jobs, unless the retailer one is working for is Amazon.

Shelley E. Kohan
BrainTrust
Retailers have been behind the curve in hiring for tech talent over the past five years, however, in the last two years there has been more of an emphasis of hiring the talent. One challenge is the dearth in the industry for the talent in the field of analytics. Boomers may have extensive experience with deep industry knowledge and may lack tech analytical skills, while newer manager Millennials may have the tech skills without deep industry knowledge. The key is to create mentoring between the generations that can optimize the industry knowledge with the tech talent. Software companies (like SAS) are creating internships that help students learn the field and better market the job opportunities and colleges are creating curriculum to provide courses around tech applications. For example, Fashion Institute of Technology has revamped the courses to better prepare students in the field of analytics (disclaimer: I work there). From a retail perspective, the most important skills to help retailers deliver better service, more efficient operations and innovation solutions are analytics, collaboration on cross-functional teams… Read more »
Seth Nagle
Guest

Retail and other non-tech industries have always faced obstacles when it comes to hiring tech talent because of two main factors.

The first is because of competition. Retail is just not as “sexy” as the Googles and Facebooks of the world. You’ve seen companies like GE and others launch marketing campaigns to help change that perception and it looks like it’s an uphill battle but they have had some success to date.

The second is lack of content and excitement around retail. When students are skimming for possible jobs the internet is filled with thought-provoking content and open source content surrounding all things tech. However, in retail, it’s the exact opposite. Everything is protected IP and trade secrets making it a very difficult industry to learn anything let alone get excited about.

Retailers need to become more transparent and start sharing insights with substance with their publication partners and allow young students the opportunity to really understand what retail is all about in 2018 and on.

Dan Frechtling
BrainTrust

Hiring technology and data science talent is not for the faint hearted — regardless of industry. Candidates out of college have multiple offers, those already in the workforce get multiple calls a week from recruiters. These are the problems all companies with technology openings face. A couple ideas for retail:

  1. Sell the roles, not just the company. Jobs in marketing, cybersecurity and consumer insights draw interest. Start with internships that bring in promising college students ahead of graduation.
  2. Be flexible around location. Lose the old biases about remote employment and working from home. Expand into new locations. One of the drivers behind HQ2 was Amazon’s need to find talent outside of Seattle.
Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Retail has never been thought of as having a lot of sizzle — except for those of us who love it. This is especially true in the technology area. Historically those who were in IT were seen as people to do the bidding of the other more glamorous departments such as marketing. While times have changed, some of that legacy thinking still exists.

Today retail is still not seen as very exciting by many, especially those with technology skills. If tech pros were asked if they would rather work for Oracle or Kroger, what do you think the answer would be? I think we all know. Retailers need to covey the complex issues they face to potential candidates. They also must elevate the viability of their tech departments by involving not only the CIO but others by including them in meetings, plans and execution of the business. It goes without saying that this also involves providing a level of compensation that is competitive.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

My fear is that even if they succeed in finding the talent that they really won’t know what to do with it. In retail there is a legacy mindset that ignores the connection between technology and customers. And, when your customers are way ahead of you on the technology curve, you are probably in trouble.

Cate Trotter
Guest
I think a lot of retailers struggle with technology. There seems to be a reluctance to be a first mover with a lot of tech, due to the speed of change and cost, and then by the time it’s nearing mainstream they’re playing catch-up. I think a lot of retailers are buying start-ups or running tech incubators as a way of sidestepping this — and the challenge of staff. I always say that retailers need to look at their business and their customers first, and then use technology as a tool to serve them better. That can help stop knee-jerk implementation of tech or wasted investment. If your customers aren’t going to interact with touchscreens you don’t need to invest in them. Perhaps you should be focusing on your app. Or maybe your customers don’t want any tech on their side at all, but you should be putting investment into tech that helps your staff provide a better experience. Once you have a strategy you know what talent you need. Although retailers are competing against… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest

I think the days of retailers struggling to attract talent at their corporate headquarters are waning. The stores are a different story, however I am seeing retailers matching and exceeding other industry compensation packages.

I think a more broad issue is the balancing of technologists and data scientists with even more capable AI technologies. Why depend on dozens or hundreds of humans to learn how to overcome business challenges in every function of the enterprise, when machines can learn faster and more productively? The key point is to hire the management to drive the technology to achieve the business objectives.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Traditional retailers are having to become software companies in order to compete. The catch is that their cultures are simply not geared for the fast pace possible with technology development or the employee expectations that go along with it. There’s no question that most retailers are behind the curve (by a lot). Acquiring talent that understands experience and customer needs, be it store associates or software developers, is unchanged.

Mike Osorio
Guest

Retailers are behind the curve because of the noted disparities in the attractiveness of working retail vs. pure tech companies and in pay (perceived or not), but also due to the lack of purpose & vision in most marketing and/or IT departments that seek to employ such talent. Those that want to buck the trend should do a few things:

  1. They develop a clear and agile technology strategy that connects evolving customer and employee needs with advancing technology solutions, and relate this strategy well in their recruitment communications.
  2. They offer a reasonably competitive pay package with a clear career progression.
  3. They play a long game, getting very close to key university programs (such as the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University — disclaimer: I’m on the advisory board). In doing so, they build a story of exciting tech role opportunities, as well as the overall excitement and potential of retail careers. In turn, students and faculty begin to see the retailer as delivering on their promise and this pulls students to that retailer.
Trevor Sumner
BrainTrust
This is a complex question with many different answers. eCommerce-focused retail has always been able to attract top tech talent and has a DNA of technology-oriented organizations. The same is true for physical retail on the supply chain, although it has been less agile and lagging in the adoption of AI and Big Data solutions than digital natives. The open challenge is filling in the technology skill gap within the in-store retail and marketing efforts and how to leverage technology to change consumer behavior. For too long, brick-and-mortar retail has had its head in the sand and has struggled to adopt technology with a mindset for agile adaptation. This is clearly changing rapidly in some organizations, often those with strong margins, less burdensome debt and an expanding business (Nike, Ulta, etc.). Those that are winning are reinvesting in the technology to help them pull away. It’s fascinating to watch Nordstrom choose to acquire technology companies rather than license their products, but it’s a wise move in building an integrated, well-working technology team focused on key… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"If retailers can meet tech giants in terms of competitive salaries and benefits, they should have no issues attracting great talent."
"What retailers should have by now is a huge database of customer shopping data. They need the talent to be able to mine that data in a usable way..."
"Traditional retailers are having to become software companies in order to compete."

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