Retailers ‘must offer more’ to attract tech talent

In the rush to attract the right tech talent to help drive digital transformation plans, retailers must think about things other than just salary and benefits packages, according to a panel of experts.

Speaking at the Tech. conference yesterday afternoon, Andy Wolfe, group digital director at Kingfisher, said that the current IT skills shortage in the UK was a “hot topic” with the best people “at a premium”.

He suggested that first and foremost, retailers needed to provide interesting projects to work on. “We hope our digital transformation plans are compelling enough to get the right people in”, explained Wolfe, but added that the often younger tech-focused workers “want to feel like their part of a wider purpose”.

This idea was shared by Paul Clarke, chief technology officer at Ocado, who agreed that “culture has a large part to play” in whether young professionals join the company.

“We’ve got a seemingly never-ending list of challenges to solve, but hopefully that gives people an opportunity to learn,” he said, adding: “Contrary to popular belief, developers don’t just run on beer and pizza, they like to see their work in action, making a difference.”

James Sturrock, chief executive of mattress company EVE, said he liked the saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and retailers must align their strategy to an overall purpose, empowering tech teams to solve problems, challenging and supporting them, rather than telling staff what to do.

Having previously worked at larger corporates before stints at Moonpig and EVE, Sturrock admitted that bigger companies have the advantage in terms of retaining staff, as there are more opportunities to promote or move people diagonally, but at smaller businesses it’s important to “treat people’s time as an experience and accept that they may move on after a few years”.

When asked about using technology to solve supply chain problems, Sturrock recognised the need to make sure a nice customer-facing front end was properly joined up to back end processes and systems.

“At Moonpig we really knew about it if things didn’t arrive on time, so we invested in upgrading some legacy systems to make sure we could deliver what was promised,” he commented. “The same goes for EVE, where we found out that we didn’t always know what was in stock and not being able to fulfil orders was really harming trust in the brand – so it’s important to fix those things, find manual processes and automate them.”

Clarke said that omnichannel is fundamental to Ocado. “We’re all about moving things around in smart and efficient ways – we figured that if we could do it with food, which is just atoms, then we could do it with other things too.”

He explained that the company was working to build an “internet of freight” connecting the UK, alongside the experiments being undertaken at Ocado’s new ‘Living Lab’, where staff are working on drones, artificial intelligence and smart infrastructure.

Wolfe said that it was easy to get carried away about technology fuelling customer experience, when it should really be the other way around, stating: “We try to focus on the customer journey, rather than just doing tech for tech’s sake.”

Clarke responded that a balance must be struck, because as a disruptor, “it’s not always about listening to customers, sometimes it’s about making bold leaps forward”.

In a separate session, Andy Rudd, director of customer experience at Kingfisher, told the audience that when working on digital transformation projects “you need to be radical” rather than tinkering around the edges. “You must be prepared for some things to fail – follow the mantra of test, learn, iterate, fail.”

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