As fashion goes digital, skills must adapt

Retailing in the 21st century has gone through many guises, but it is the ongoing digital revolution that will have the most lasting effect on the retail landscape. Central to this is the need for the fashion industry to adopt and develop IT, technology, and analytics skills, not only keep to up, but to also stay ahead.

In a new report issued by the Fashion Retail Academy, its research, conducted in association with OC&C Strategy Consultants, show there is a huge shortage of skills, with retailers lacking 57 percent in technical and IT skills, 48 percent in analytical skills and 35 percent struggling to find staff with appropriate e-commerce business skills.

Technology is changing the retail landscape

Retailers are increasingly similar to technology companies rather than traditional retailers, using data as well as intuition and experience to react to ever increasing and dynamic customer expectations.

To succeed in this environment organisations will need to recruit and foster new skills and create new central roles. The OC&C research shows explosive role growth of over 50 percent will be seen in the functions most impacted such as analytics, while nearly all central functions will see some increase in the number of roles.

As fashion goes digital, skills must adapt

Overall there will be an increase of 20-30 percent increase in central employees excluding the supply chain. Including changes to the central supply chain management, and the need to replace employees who leave the industry, retailers will need to recruit 50,000- 60,000 new central employees over the next few years.

This new army of staff will need analytical and technological skills. Without these skills companies will find it difficult to attract or retain customers in an increasingly competitive environment.

What is causing the change?

Technology has increased the number of channels through which customers interact, hastened the pace of customer demands, expanded the amount of data available and increased the intensity of the competitive environment.

As a result of these changes it is widely acknowledged that the successful retailer of tomorrow will not look the same as the average retailer today. Instead they will develop acute customer insight, which requires analytical prowess and expertise in data collection, to innovate by channel, become an expert in content creation to drive more engagement with the brand and the commercialisation of social media, and increase the pace of operations to meet consumer demands.

The shift that is coming has led to headlines such as the recent prediction of 1m jobs in retail lost by 2051. This would equate to a net loss of circa 160,000 jobs in fashion were it evenly distributed. However the impact on the number and type of resources required has been less considered. This change poses a new type of challenge; finding, developing and retaining the right people.

What can be done?

It will be a shared responsibility between retailers themselves, who must invest in their employee development, but also institutions and schools with a fashion focus will need to ensure they provide courses which will fill skills gaps in the industry, particularly at the post-graduate level for people with non-fashion backgrounds. Lastly, the government must support educational institutions to improve the perception of retail as a potential career path for graduates, and help develop experiences and qualifications which will be valuable.

One of the reason retailers are struggling to find the right staff, is that fashion graduates are pursuing the more 'glossy' role in the industry, like design, marketing and production. Number crunching is seen as a less sexy option, as are the more complex role requiring analytical skills. Some retailers have been looking outside of the fashion realm to find suitable finance and IT educated staff, but recruiting outside of fashion also comes with its own issues. Someone who excelled at computer science may not understand what the key drivers of the fashion industry are.

Retailers today have have increasing access to an abundance of rich data - on customer behaviour, company costs, and online competition - but many are not yet leveraging the opportunity to maximise its value. Ultimately it will benefit both the brand and the customer alike.

Photo and article credit: Fashion Retail Academy, source: Fashion Forwarding Fashion: Skill for the Future report, homepage image: Desigual