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Technology has and will continue to disrupt the retail landscape

When the B2B food delivery and supply business of Brakes plummeted in the UK owing to the COVID outbreak, it acted fast. The company pivoted rapidly, innovated, and regained its footing by launching a new direct-to-consumer platform in just seven-days.

In the UK, with lockdowns in effect, the 2020 retail sales volumes plunged by 1.9% when compared with 2019. And the Brakes story wasn’t the only instance of a brand turning to technology in the moment of crisis. Studies show that new technology solutions are being sought out by 64% of the retail leaders and the implementation of new technology by the end of 2021 is deemed as a priority for 79% of the retailers.

While retailers embraced technology to create new business models and drive process improvements, there’s no denying that the workforce suffered. In the UK alone, retail jobs to the tune of virtually 190,000 were lost since the onset of the pandemic.

The onus, therefore, is now on the retailers to re-establish worker confidence and prep them for the future. A lot of that, however, is now dependent on consumer behavior, which incidentally has undergone a sea of change.

Innovative Customer Experiences

At the height of the pandemic, consumers resorted to online shopping. But in 2021, a McKinsey study showed that 60-70% of the US consumers displayed an increasing affinity towards omnichannel experiences. This is reflective of the year-over-year sales for e-commerce, which surged by 30% for August and the growth of in-store sales by 5% for the same period.

And for that reason, retail brands are now banking on a slew of ‘phygital’ experiences – a combination of in-store physical and digital experiences. Take for instance Nike’s ‘NYC House of Innovation’ concept stores which offers customers the feeling of visiting Smith Rock State Park in Oregon by using augmented reality (AR) and in-store scanning QR codes. Similarly, Love, Bonito has an AR-enabled walkway at its store in Singapore.

While these innovations are a great way to heighten the customer experience, the demands that they present on the retail workforce are new and challenging.

New Retail Jobs Emerge

Retailers recognize that customization and personalization are vital to provide consumers with new experiences. It is essential, therefore, that brands have a single view of the customer across all their channels. Some are even re-structuring their organizations to this effect.

In July 2020, Walmart consolidated its digital and in-store buying teams into one merchandising organization. The goal was to unify buying operations, simplify communications with vendors, create efficiencies and in the end, better serve customers.

Technology and workflow interventions in the retail business impacts the workforce and cascades to a host of new roles that now emerge to the fore. These include,

  • Product Managers: that focus on the development of product lines and personalization across all channels

  • Supply Chain specialists: that optimize end-to-end process flows and supply chain visibility, increase responsiveness through cost-effective distribution networks

  • Data scientists: who leverage analytics to glean consumer insights for planning and decision-making

  • Store associates: that perform multiple functions from serving customers through the checkout process, to using technology for order-restocking function

  • Digital marketers: who plan, design, execute and measure digital campaigns to specific target audiences.

The challenge for retail organizations now though is to take stock of their current workforce, evaluate them and ensure that they’re better prepared for their near- and long-term business needs.

Onus on the Retailer

A 2020 study showed that organizations with employees that leverage digital interventions are almost three times (2.7) more likely to have boosted revenue growth by at least 20% in the past three years. Such organizations are also five-times (5.4) more likely to sustain these growth rates over the next three years.

Reskilling and upskilling the workforce will, therefore, be a priority for retail organizations. And some retailers are already doing this via internships and focused training programs.

Co-Op, an on-demand UK grocer, works with University of Keele to curate apprenticeships in data science. Meanwhile, Best Buy, looks to grow talent through a technology program that prioritizes diversity. Similarly, more that 60,000 of Woolworths Australia’s employees are getting trained on Machine Learning (ML), Virtual Reality (VR), robotics, and data analytics in a program that is set to cost the supermarket giant over AU$50 million.

In addition to skill enhancements, retailers will on-board talent that doesn’t exist in-house. Also, bulk of the manual tasks will be automated. And when possible, organizations will work with partners in the retail ecosystem to fill the workforce gap.

Retail’s Very-own ‘Hybrid’ Model

In the not-so distant future, the retail workplace will achieve ‘steady state’ in a ‘hybrid’ model that’s unique to its industry.

The technology driven back-end that powers the retail business via cloud computing capabilities will have professionals operating remotely while not being restrained by location. On the brick-and-mortar storefront, employees will be more ‘digital fluent’ and will possess the ability to perform multiple roles – from smart-check out and order fulfillment, to vendor data management and warehouse management.

The ‘hybrid’ retail workforce of the future could also witness robots assisting operations. A case in point being Walmart's January 2021 announcement of its intent to use robots in warehouses to pick frozen foods and smaller goods.

Technology, therefore, shall change the face of the already evolving retail landscape. And the skilled workforce of the future - aspiring to ply its trade in the retail industry - will no longer be restricted to just manning the cash register and placing products on the shelf.

For more on how SAP can help personalize retail experiences for your brand, visit