Ahead of their event, Accelerate 2022, BRC Learning's Director, Lucy Crowther, spoke to FutureDotNow about the retail industry's digital skills gap.

“Many people coming into the retail workforce for the first time are lacking digital skills, either because they’ve never been taught or they’re nervous when asked to interact with technology in a different way.”

Lucy Crowther shares what she hears from members of the British Retail Consortium, the trade association for the UK retail industry. It represents over 190 major retailers, with members delivering £180 billion for the UK economy and employing over 1.5 million people.

For the retail sector, the UK’s largest private sector employer, there’s a deadlock. Digital skills are now needed for 79% of retail jobs, but 62% of leaders say they can’t find people with the right experience.

Lucy adds: “It’s a shame, as retail has a fantastic record of bringing people through the workforce. If there’s a sector that over indexes on social mobility and opportunity, it’s retail, and leisure and hospitality as well. There are no barriers to entry.

A lot of our CEOs today started their careers on the shop floor. But there’s a ceiling if you don’t want to engage with technology.”

Retail leaders say the skills gap is their biggest challenge in building a multichannel approach to sales and a consistent and positive customer experience.[1]

But put the customer journey aside for a minute, a lack of digital skills is also deterring career progression and changing the sector employee makeup. An increase in tech requires workers to have up-to-date IT skills, which is a challenge for older workers who are less likely to have the interest or capabilities.[2] Additionally, as older staff retire, fewer younger people are entering the industry at the same rate.

Retail, along with every other sector, is now competing for those people who already have digital skills.

BRC highlights that the ability to engage with digital and manage and analyse data are prerequisites to becoming a senior manager today. Yet, there’s a problem as many existing staff shy away from or never intend to embrace technology.

“Someone who struggles to engage with the shop till and wants to do the manual work stocking shelves is restricted in their ability to move to a better job and better pay,” says Lucy. “It’s a lose/lose for employer and employee.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced quick tech adoption across the retail sector, but still, 25% of frontline retail workers are not classed as data literate.

Lucy says: “If we want to have the maximum amount of people in our talent pipeline, we have to remove the barriers when it comes to an affinity with or desire to engage with technology. And, individuals need to know that if they’re not willing, they are limiting themselves. So it would be great to see digital academies popping up in distribution centres, or even if we had some kind of cross-sector working. We owe it to the people who work so hard for us delivering our customer experience, to give them every opportunity to be comfortable around tech and data.”

[1] Retail Week, Data: UK retail skills gap at crisis point, 2020.

[2] Gov.uk,  Sector insights: skills and performance challenges in the retail sector, 2015.

[3] PricewaterhouseCoopers, Data and analytics in the retail sector.

[4] Retail Week, Data: UK retail skills gap at crisis point, 2020.

[5] Gov.uk,  Sector insights: skills and performance challenges in the retail sector, 2015.