Can retail compete for data scientists?

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images
Jan 23, 2017

While many sessions at the NRF Big Show 2017 explored the potential of capitalizing on Big Data, a few touched on the challenges of finding employees equipped to handle that onslaught of information.

“I think we all want to hire three million data scientists…but we’re all fighting for the same talent,” said David Abbott, VP, integrated media and online marketing, Home Depot, at a session exploring purchase intent analytics.

Mr. Abbott said any hires to his team must be comfortable with data as a “prerequisite.” He also looks to individuals who are “intellectually curious” enough to learn on their own as data tools are bound to significantly change year after year. Mr. Abbott added, “None of us were born with data science in our heads or anything like that. So, if you have intellectual curiosity and at least some degree of comfort with data, that’s 9/10ths of the battle.”

At the same session, Jeff Rosenfeld, VP, customer insight and analytics, Neiman Marcus, noted that the rate of technology change is “absolutely amazing.” His team manages 10 to 15 tool sets now versus only one or two when he joined Neiman about 12 years ago. Mr. Rosenfeld added, “It forces us to have to really prioritize and identify what are the things that we want to develop ourselves and what are the things we want to partner with the best of breed vendors out there to really help escalate the path.”

At another session focusing on attracting and retaining retail talent, panelists discussed how technology is creating demand for new skillsets not only around analytics but social media and website development. Bill Brand, president of HSN, said the retail industry needs to “look for people in nontraditional backgrounds who never really thought retail was for them.”

Kip Tindell, Container Store’s CEO, who introduced the session, noted that the industry is competing against “some of the most advanced companies in the world to fill” more high-tech talent while having to battle “outdated myths and misconceptions about retail jobs.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do retailers face major challenges attracting quality applicants for analytical roles? What adjustments or compromises may be necessary to attract and retain the talent needed to for these jobs?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Retailers have fabulous opportunities for all areas of data analytics but students do not know about them."
"The need for expert data scientists is quickly starting to wane. There are tools available that handle all of the dirty work of making sense of data."
"For the most part, however, the industry should not be competing to hire white-coated academic theorists. Leave them to the software companies..."

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15 Comments on "Can retail compete for data scientists?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Data talent is a hot commodity in every industry. Every business faces the challenge of being overrun with data and many don’t have data specialists who can extract the critical insights. While every retailer needs to develop some data capability, I agree that the key is to prioritize which specific analytics the retailer should do internally vs. the work that can be easily outsourced by data specialists who can often do better quality and more timely work at a lower cost.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I have to agree. Prioritize or drown. WHAT is the important data and then HOW does it impact the product in the pipeline? Or the marketing? Or the in-store presentation? Or web site pagination? I look at it as left brain/right brain stuff. How does the left brain data miner serve up the information in manner that the right brain product developer can actually do something with it? At some point pure data has to be fused into a design & development process. That’s the hard part.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Talent goes where it is valued and typically where it does not have to win its own corporate credibility. Retail competes against insurance, hedge funds, banking and manufacturing for analytics talent, and when I looked a few years ago there were just over 200 people working in that labor category in retail. Creating the pool starts with recognition that there is a hole. Since the key to analytics is in representing data to reveal insights, retailers should focus on creating dashboards that can evolve to illustrate actionable insights.

Christopher Collins, assistant professor at the University of Ontario, is one of those on the leading edge of data filtering, aggregation and comparison used to generate insights and actionable intelligence as described here.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

What are other companies doing to compete for data scientists? They are partnering with the educational programs of companies producing software or conducting analytics to participate in educational activities. What are retailers doing in this area? Almost nothing. Therefore it is no surprise that data science students do not think about retailers when seeking jobs. If retailers are serious they need to get involved with companies such as Teradata or SAS that offer opportunities to get involved with students as they are learning. Retailers have fabulous opportunities for all areas of data analytics but students do not know about them.

Tom Dougherty
Guest

Retail has challenges in competing with other sectors for talent.

Fix the problem by enacting revolutionary changes. Make the industry exciting by actually being different from the stagnation that makes the industry look passé.

If you want to hire exciting people the solution is quite easy. Be exciting.

Lee Kent
Guest

I’m going to use this opportunity to plug the new program RISE Up! This is all the more reason that young people need to learn more about retail as a profession. Retail is both an art and science and a very fun industry to work in for all kinds of folks. Just look at a geek like me. Loving and learning retail for more than 40 years.

And that is my 2 cents.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

As the father of a data scientist (who did not follow me into retail), this is close to my heart. More and more undergraduate and graduate business schools are creating data science majors (as opposed to a mashup of math, computer science and business) because of the demand for this kind of expertise. But competition is fierce and prices are high for the talent pool. Are retailers willing to dig into their pockets to compete on salary and benefits against tech companies? The evidence so far is thin.

Shawn Harris
BrainTrust
Shawn Harris
Senior Director, Global Retail and Hospitality Strategy & Business Development, Turing.ai
5 years 3 months ago
The need for expert data scientists is quickly starting to wane. There are tools available that handle all of the dirty work of making sense of data — it all starts with clarity in understanding the business problem, or area of exploration, a business wants to tackle. There is a six-phase model used in data science to turn data into business value, it’s called CRISP-DM (Cross Industry Standard Process for Data Mining). The first step is business understanding, and is the most critical step … what are we trying to figure out and in what context? The next three steps are where I believe a software tool can help. The steps are data understanding, data preparation and modeling. You may need data ops folks to ensure appropriate data access — I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not black-magic anymore. The model closes out with evaluation and deployment AKA value realization. Don’t wait to find a data scientist, I’m sure you have a few smart folks internally who are willing to learn something new… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson
Guest

Some great points have been made in the comments section so far. I would add that retailers need to first reassess their current systems for utilization (I have seen as low as 10 percent), because more utilization can circumvent the need for additional data scientists. Also, I see new technologies in the marketplace that extract data scientist requirements almost entirely in some cases. Retailers need to do some key business functions evaluations before adding more data scientists to the headcount.

James Tenser
BrainTrust
Retail may be arriving a bit late to the data science party, but there is no doubt that ours is an increasingly data-intensive business. So we need to pursue people with these skills and abilities. For the most part, however, the industry should not be competing to hire white-coated academic theorists. Leave them to the software companies and the consulting firms. Retailers need applied talent — people with business training and practical knowledge. There are a handful of university programs in retail and consumer science that have been turning out young merchants who can sift data and code. These are new forms of literacy in our world and big chains like Walmart, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Home Depot and PetSmart have been snapping up those graduates year after year. Certainly the NRF Foundation’s RISE Up initiative promoting retail careers and credentialing is in part a response to this reality. In the next few years, DATA SCIENCE competency will emerge as a core skill, not an exotic specialty. So here’s a tip for job-seekers in the age… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
Guest

There is no hiding the fact that data mining has become important. Look at sports; baseball in particular. Most, if not all, Major League Baseball teams have a data mining (statistics) department. The sport has become so scientific that points we never would consider to be important have led to team wins as well as player recruitment. The same can be done for retail. But as I have said many times, one major retailer has to understand the importance of it and hire the right people. Retail is a copycat industry. Once the competition sees what one is doing, others will follow.

Ben Zifkin
Guest
5 years 3 months ago

It is strange. I expected there to be a much larger hesitation for hard core data scientists to join our company. Many folks are focused on more academic initiatives or focuses on areas with huge scope like global healthcare. However, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much interest there is in data science for commerce. There are global implications, massive amounts of data and tons of relationships/interdependencies. All of these are extremely appealing to data science folks up for a challenge. Let’s not sell ourselves short.

On a side note, I would look a little further ahead. Although it is important to have a data enabled organization now, the introduction of AI into commerce leads to the demand for a slightly different skill set. I would be careful and ensure you are keeping an eye on that future while you are building out your current data infrastructure.

Min-Jee Hwang
Guest

Retailers definitely aren’t the first companies that come to mind to graduating data scientists, but data capabilities are quickly becoming a core competency needed for retailers, as being more data-driven is necessary to keep up with the competition. Mark Ryski makes a great point that it’s important for retailers to understand when it makes sense to invest in internal resources vs. outsource to maximize ROI. Being one of the growing number of companies that provide analytics for retailers, we often see data’s potential being underutilized by the retailers that approach us. With the highly competitive talent pool, oftentimes third-party solutions can bring more immediate value at a lower cost, especially if a retailer is unsure of how to best utilize internal resources for the same purpose.

Dave Nixon
Guest
Dave Nixon
Retail Solutions Executive, Teradata
5 years 3 months ago

Retailers will have to start to think “future talent” as well as “current needs.” They have to tap into the up-and-coming pool of data scientists — students attending colleges with excellent data programs that can yield the type of resources that are aligning with your needs. The first channels students turn to when seeking internships or jobs are their college advisor and the Career Services/Co-op offices. Cultivate relationships with them and with professors, and communicate job opportunities.

Retailers who take the time to attend career fairs or start a co-op program will get first dibs on the talent pool and will be able to test drive potential hires, and “grow’ up the next generation of talent to alleviate some of the talent shortages that we are experiencing. This approach also informs academia on how to develop deeper and richer disciplines around data analysis.

Scott Magids
Guest
5 years 3 months ago

The real question isn’t whether retailers can compete for data scientists, it’s whether they really need to. It’s true that data and predictive analytics is absolutely essential to drive marketing decisions, product development and guide new opportunities. Data science is at the heart of some of the biggest and most successful retail decisions in the industry.

But like many essential tasks, the as-a-service model may be more efficient, especially for mid-tier retailers who need to focus on their core specialties. Taking a data-science-as-a-service approach allows those retailers to access the best data science talent and thought leadership available that they would otherwise find out of reach.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Retailers have fabulous opportunities for all areas of data analytics but students do not know about them."
"The need for expert data scientists is quickly starting to wane. There are tools available that handle all of the dirty work of making sense of data."
"For the most part, however, the industry should not be competing to hire white-coated academic theorists. Leave them to the software companies..."

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