Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

Upskilling workers is crucial to success in a post-physical retail landscape

By Ali Rezvan, Retail Director at Microsoft UK  

Retail is at an inflection point. As technology influences more and more of our day to day lives, from hybrid working to virtual appointments, the modern customer no longer just expects a fast, personalised and “always-on” shopping experience – they demand it. Shopper’s expectations have been elevated by the boom in e-commerce during the pandemic and what was once considered cutting-edge customer service is now the norm. For retailers, this means they must act fast to capitalise, or potentially lose out. 

Naturally, retailers in the UK are at different stages of their journey to being data-led. While many retailers embraced digital transformation and innovated fast to cope with lockdowns, all retailers, from bricks and mortar stores to those with an omni-channel strategy must now focus on implementing the second stage of that transformation – upskilling their workforce. 

Empower employees with digital literacy 

Retailers know that to delight and attract repeat customers, they must provide fun, seamless, convenient and personalised digital and in-person experiences, led by engaged, knowledgeable and happy employees. 

In a clothing shop, this could look like a customer scanning a reward card to ‘check in’ to the store using a digital screen. Should they need help, staff can access the customer’s purchase history and make recommendations. Customers and staff can look at stock levels in real-time, so if a product is sold out, it can be delivered to the customer’s home on the same day. Employees can move around the shop freely, rather than stuck behind a till, with the use of mobile devices like Surface, and spend more time engaging with customers to offer a quicker, easier and more personalised experience. 

The employee experience is a crucial element to meeting customer needs today, but GCS data from 2020 found that 42 per cent of retail employees had not received any form of digital learning and just 17 per cent of the UK workforce consider themselves to be ‘data literate’ according to Accenture

Retailers can invest in every technology available to them, but it will be meaningless unless they equip their employees with the right skills to implement and run these tools effectively. Upskilling staff through training and courses will ensure they are empowered to become digitally skilled and given the opportunities to succeed in a data-driven culture. 

Re-imagining the retail workforce  

Retailers must use their learnings from the pandemic and work to foster a culture where people and teams feel fully supported to do their best work, as data-driven decision making becomes central to business operations. 

In a competitive market, where talent is hard to find and equally hard to retain, retailers are finding it challenging to meet both their customers and their employees’ expectations. Retail leaders must now invest in empowering, engaging and continuously re-training their frontline workforce as routine tasks become automated and manual processes are streamlined and digitalised. 

Retailers must now look at ways in which they can shift towards an employee-centric business model, to ensure they are the employer of choice, whilst turning their workforce into an adaptive team that is digital, data fluent and diverse. As the effort previously spent on manual processes is reduced and productivity is increased, employees will feel better able to live the company’s values and culture, with the customer becoming the main beneficiary. 

Giving customers what they want 

Retailer Marks and Spencer is one such example of a business using technology to streamline work and free up time, so that their associates can serve more customers, resolve issues and requests more quickly and represent the brand more effectively. The company has built a culture around serving customers how they want to be served – in large part by developing digital capabilities inside their physical stores and deploying staff with devices on the shop floor. 

The core of the digital transformation taking place at M&S is two-fold – to better serve its customers, but also to reimagine how retail frontline employees experience their work, as the human face of the retailer. 

Retailers that identify their employees as their most important asset and ensure that they are adequately skilled and equipped for success in a data-driven culture, will be best placed to capitalise on the opportunities that digital transformation presents in the future. 

With engaged, empowered employees who feel supported and capable of solving day-to-day tasks with ease as part of a wider, interconnected team, retailers can move forward with their digital transformation plans safe in the knowledge that they are prepared to meet customer demand as it continues to evolve. 


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