By Sarah-Jayne Bennell, Director and Head of Global Consumer Practice, Veredus

The UK retail arena has experienced a remarkable amount of change over the past few years. The combination of ongoing improvements in the economy along with an increase in the number of channels available to retailers has meant that many have experienced significant growth. However, shifting consumer needs and a demand for technology are placing an increasing toll on these organisations as customers are now looking for a fuller and immersive retail experience. So what impact is this shift having and what does it mean for talent?

Consumers are now looking for an easy and engaging retail experience which reflects the service they receive when shopping on mobile or online. For example, the betting firm, Ladbrokes pumped turf smell into its outlets during the summer in order to create a more realistic and absorbing atmosphere in its stores. By adopting this approach, retailers aim to develop a stronger connection between company and customer which, they hope, will encourage consumers to regularly shop with their organisation. And it’s not only in the gambling arena where this change is taking place, it’s right across the retail sector. Gucci’s flagship Milan store has utilised technology to create a more engrossing journey for customers by installing life size flat screens that stream videos from live catwalk shows. Under Armour, the sports manufacturer is another example. It developed a fully immersive 270 degree video screen for Chinese consumers to view when entering its Shanghai store that helps to teach the story of the brand and its history. Other examples of retailers using technology to improve this experience include the interactive ‘Jeanius’ bar at Selfridges where jeans can be measured to fit by a bespoke modelling machine in the shop and Nike, which installs macs into many outlets so consumers can ‘Make It Yours’ and personalise their footwear.

This ongoing change to the sector has created a shift in demand for organisations and means many retailers will have to adapt their talent strategies. And, as a result of the rise in immersive technology, retail talent will also need to develop new skills. Professionals who work in physical stores will have to build on their existing technology competencies if they want to be able to show consumers how products work. They’ll also need to be equipped with an understanding of what to do should anything go wrong with the systems. And on the other side, talent in the back office would be well advised to have advanced knowledge of what consumers are looking for and how their products can impact the customer. Those that can build the bridge between the actual and the virtual are consequently likely to find themselves very attractive to potential employers.

This approach also means that both front and back office talent will need to work together more in the future if they want to be truly effective in developing immersive technology for their consumers. Any borders between technical and front office talent should be stripped away and both sides should be allowed to collaborate and up skill from the other. By doing this, all talent should have an increased understanding of how the technology works as well as knowledge of what customers are looking for. Apple is already leading the way in this respect with its ‘Geniuses’ who work in the firms retail outlets. These staff are able to understand consumer needs while still possessing detailed technological understanding. In the future, it’s predicted more talent will be as holistically gifted as these professionals in order to develop more fully immersive retail experiences.

To make these changes happen, however, retailers need to ensure they have a leader who ‘gets’ this new approach and can pass the strategy on to others. There’s been a recent shift towards talent from outside the sector who can bring fresh ideas and ways of thinking that professionals already working in retail might not necessarily have been able to do. Burger King, for example, has highlighted this with its appointment of 33 —year old, Daniel Schwartz as CEO. Schwartz has previously worked in private equity and financial analysis but has drastically improved Burger King’s fortunes in his first job in the fast food industry. He even spent his first few months in restaurants understanding how they could improve, highlighting his openness and desire to learn.

In order to continue to drive this shift towards a completely immersive retail experience organisations will have to continue to encourage collaboration between technical talent in the back office of the business and staff in physical retail outlets. By doing so, firms will be able to encourage greater levels of customer participation and build stronger consumer relationships, which can only benefit them in the long run.

How do you think technology has affected retailers’ talent strategies?