RSR Research: Jobs vs. Careers in Retail

May 17, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, Retail Systems Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers.

In a typical RSR "Selling Technology Value to Retailers" (STV) session, we can have 25 technology sales representatives in a room. We’ll start the session with round-the-table introductions and the two questions we ask are, "Have you ever worked for a retailer?" and "Why did you leave?"

As you might expect, the vast majority of all the participants in STV sessions since 2005 have had at least some experience in retail as a part-time or summer/seasonal job, before going on to "get a real job" (as it is often described) in something that uses the skills they learned in school. But very few (my guess, 10 percent) have spent any significant time in the industry or worked above a purely store-clerical level. Those 10 percent who did stay became store managers, merchants or occasionally office support staff in finance and IT. But stating the obvious, 100 percent of them left retail sooner or later to work in the technology industry. For all of them, retail was not a career – it was just a job.

For all the partners at RSR, it was different. Each of us got "bitten by the retail bug." After all, the industry is very here-and-now, and feedback is nearly instantaneous from consumers whether you’ve got it right or wrong. And, retail is all about helping people; people don’t buy what they don’t want, and so meeting their needs can be very satisfying.

But for most people, retail is a stopover until something better comes along… and that seems to be a perception fostered by the industry itself. And it goes beyond low-paying, low-skill store jobs—even support positions at retail often aren’t viewed as worthy of careers.

According to government statistics, 35.8 percent of fashion retail employees and a notably larger 58.2 percent in grocery are not in "sales and related" occupations. So that’s where all the supply chain & logistics, merchandising, accounting and finance, IT, and other "support" staffs are to be found, and that’s where the industry needs an educated workforce that views retail as a good place to practice their skills and build a career.

So shouldn’t corporations invest more in education and training their future careerists by supporting stronger educational standards and programs in the communities they serve?

IT skills development in particular is not something that retail in general has focused much energy or attention on. Indeed, many companies still argue that IT is a cost center, and a troublesome one at that. But if you agree with RSR’s vision of the importance of information in the future of retail, that’s a dangerous position to take.

Discussion Questions: How does IT talent in the retail industry compare to other industries? What does the retail industry need to do to attract  technology talent?

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4 Comments on "RSR Research: Jobs vs. Careers in Retail"

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Paula Rosenblum
10 years 23 hours ago

To amplify Brian’s comments, I’ve been on the road a lot these days and am continually hearing that retailers really cannot find specific types of IT expertise for tech implementation. I think there’s a pay scale issue, and also it’s true, despite much evidence to the contrary, too many see IT as a cost center rather than a revenue generator.

Ralph Jacobson
10 years 20 hours ago

The culture of retailing is evolving, if slowly, to better embrace technology as a competitive advantage, rather than viewing it traditionally as a cost to manage. The retailers that have the more progressive, competitive advantage perspective are the ones recruiting, attracting, hiring and compensating the talent for their IT roles. IT must also better collaborate with the business functions at the retailer. I still see HUGE disconnects between business and IT on a regular basis.

Gordon Arnold
10 years 20 hours ago
The corporations that do have a great deal of success with using IT as a sales and marketing tool all have one significant common characteristic. These companies have sales and marketing executives as CEOs and in most cases, there are a significant number of sales and marketing experts on the board of directors. Executives with backgrounds in operations, finance and acquisitions have only a subjective understanding of sales and marketing. They see the bottom line as a measurement of success or failure in itself and not as result of the processes working cohesively in a team effort towards a common goal which is understood and supported by all. Executives with only a guesstimate of how sales are made and with only user understandings of IT will never be successful by design in merging the two for better sales and market acceptance. Retail companies point to merchandisers as a sales force when nothing could be further from the truth. Sales and marketing people are trained and practiced to present cost effective solutions to qualified prospectus with… Read more »
Verlin Youd
10 years 1 hour ago

There are a few clear examples of retailers succeeding in hiring/retaining great talent across the retail enterprise, i.e. Apple. However, for every success, there are dozens of retailers who don’t seem to understand what motivates their target employees to join and stay, and the investments required to support deliver of those motivating factors.

Terry Lundgren, CEO Macy’s, shared some interesting perspective about this a couple of years ago at NRF. I won’t try to paraphrase him, as I won’t do him justice, however, I agree with him that retailer as an industry has gone too far in reducing investments in employee development, management training, and compelling career paths both inside and outside the store.


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