In this technology-enabled, omnichannel era for retail, it might seem easy to downplay the role of the workforce. If retailers can harness automation and AI to deliver a personalized and responsive customer experience across multiple channels at any time of the day or night, perhaps their sales associates will become less important?

And yet, nothing could be further from the truth: the retail workforce can add even more value in this new world. As retailers employ machines to complete tasks such as stock replenishment and demand planning, their associates will have more time to focus on the convenience and differentiated experiences that consumers increasingly demand. Sales staff will become brand ambassadors, sharing their product knowledge with customers and using technology to enhance the interaction.

The yawning skills gap

There is a problem, though. While retailers recognize the potential to blend intelligent technologies with an enhanced role for their workforces, Accenture’s research suggests too few are investing in the skills base of their employees. As a result, staff may be willing to embrace new responsibilities, but are not necessarily able to discharge them.

Jill Standish

Jill Standish  Courtesy image.

In Accenture’s 2018 Future Workforce Research, some 74 percent of the retail c-suite, or CXOs, agreed that adopting intelligent technologies would be critical to differentiation in the marketplace, while 56 percent thought AI would improve workforce productivity. But just 32 percent said the workforce was ready to work with AI.

Moreover, while 63 percent of retail CXOs cite the growing skills gap as the top trend influencing their workforce strategy, few are taking decisive action. Just 12 percent conduct advanced workforce planning that considers future skills needs. Only 5 percent have established a leadership role to manage and promote collaboration between humans and machines. And just 4 percent plan significantly to increase investment in reskilling programs.

There are clear dangers for retailers that fail to invest in equipping staff with the skills now required in the marketplace. From corporate to the sales floor, to the delivery fleet, workforces will lack the knowledge to deliver the service-focused and customer-centric experience that new technologies enable. Such retailers will find it difficult to attract and retain the talent they need to remain competitive. And they will struggle to realign their organizations with the realities of the retail landscape today.

Four steps to bridge the chasm

How, then, do retailers close the gap between ambition and what can be achieved? Many are focusing on the power of their people to differentiate the customer experience and drive growth. This strategy is already showing a strong ROI, and is something that the rest of the industry can learn from.

But how to go about it? The first step is to embrace the power of technology — to recognize that automation, AI and other tools can transform retailers’ prospects. Accenture estimates that, if retailers were to invest in these tools at the same rate as industry leaders, they could boost revenues by more than 40 percent between now and 2022. That will require a commitment to embedding new technologies throughout the business in order to connect disparate functions and make it easier for staff to do their jobs.

Fast Retailing Denim Innovation Center Los Angeles

A laser machine at Fast Retailing’s Denim Innovation Center in Los Angeles. 

The example of Japan’s Fast Retailing demonstrates what is possible. After implementing an AI-enabled device for its shop assistants, it has provided real-time data on inventory, orders and returns, and enabled better-informed conversations with customers. The company reported record sales and a boost in profitability.

The second step is for retailers to identify the specific skills they need to deliver the differentiated customers experience for which they are aiming — and to give employees as many opportunities as possible to acquire those skills and develop their careers.

Walmart, for example, is using Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets that enable trainees to practice responding to real-world scenarios. At Zappos, staff have access to an online dashboard showing their current skills, accomplishments and responsibilities; those looking for new responsibilities can find out which skills they need and identify opportunities to acquire them.

The third challenge for retailers is to think more creatively about how to access the skills they need. While retailers will already have many employees with the right talent and experience, they will also at times need to cast the net wider. Crowdsourcing, collaboration platforms and partnering offer new opportunities to acquire on-demand talent when specialist skills are required, often for projects running for a set period. AI tools offer retailers the ability to identify the best person for a specific task, searching a talent pool of in-house staff, contractors and freelancers for the perfect fit.

Finally, now comes the need to cultivate diverse talent. This is not only to meet their legal obligations, but also to secure the positive benefits of inclusion and diversity, with research suggesting team performance improves 50 percent when progress is made here. More retailers need a recruitment strategy that targets diverse populations to build a workforce more reflective of their customer base. Regular reviews of talent pipelines, recruitment and retention, and promotion rates will help to hold the business to account.

Conclusion: Power from the people

CXOs who take these four steps now have a huge opportunity to harness people power. New technologies offer a clear sense of change and renewal, but retailers investing in tools such as automation and AI will not fully secure the value on offer without a commitment to transforming their workforces. This is an opportunity to shift to a higher-value proposition, where consumers buy products they desire, from people they trust.

Jill Standish is senior managing director and head of retail at Accenture.