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The looming digital skills gap

Skills gap web

There is little doubt that personalisation is one of the buzzwords du jour in the world of fashion retail. What is less clear is the right way to approach personalisation, what the objectives should be and what those goals should be measured against. In Drapers’ first personalisation report, we aim to shed some light on these areas.


Data crunchers are the most sought after people in retail. Drapers looks at how fashion firms are attracting this in-demand talent.

The data scientists and web analysts tasked with delivering personalisation are becoming the most important recruits in retail – and the most difficult to hire.

Data has become an increasingly valuable commodity, particularly to consumer-facing businesses, such as banking, gambling and travel. The talent able to crunch, manipulate and harness this data are in high demand and fashion is not a well-trodden career path for them.

“Most data scientists would go into banking or hedge funds. Retail is an unknown for them,” says Neil Arnoux, principal web analytics consultant at ecommerce recruitment specialist Cranberry Panda.

Fashion retailers need to work hard to promote the sector as an appealing career choice for data specialists, says Arnoux.

Many are reaching out to graduates to tell their brand’s data story. Manchester-based fashion firm N Brown Group has forged relationships with organisations such as Manchester Digital and local universities, says people director Caroline Massingham. Others, such as Asos and John Lewis, have a big presence at tech recruitment roadshows such as Silicon Milkroundabout, which is held in London.

Etail platform Farfetch organises its own specialist data events to promote its brand to new recruits. It also has a talent business partner focused on data who attends networking events, keeps up to date with industry trends and builds relationships with external ambassadors – such as Silicon Milkroundabout – networking platforms and universities.

A cultural fit

Retailers need to do more to show that data is core to their business to reassure specialists that they can thrive in the sector, believes Arnoux.

Imer Cakiroglu, head of talent and people at Farfetch, says its focus is creating an environment where people are encouraged to innovate.

“We have a very tech-focused culture,” she says. “Hackathons, labs, test and learn sessions, and a ’day in the life of the data team’, where each member of the company can learn about what specific roles involve.”

Farfetch holds a unique position as both a fashion and a tech company. The platform was founded by tech entrepreneur José Neves, which makes it an easier sell for potential data recruits.

“Having a founder and CEO with such deep roots in both sectors and an understanding of how important technology is to our business, is something that definitely resonates with potential tech talent,” says Cakiroglu.

Few retailers have this selling point and for many, the data talent they are desperately trying to hire might not be a natural fit with their company culture.

“As with many technical roles, it may be necessary to think about the best ways to embed and retain highly intelligent individuals, and that may not meet the cultural norms of the organisation,” says Orlando Martins, founder and CEO of recruitment firm Oresa Executive Search.

Retailers should highlight the intellectual stimulation they can offer and the interesting projects analysts can work on.

“They want to do sexy stuff,” says Cranberry Panda founder Jonathan Hall. “Unless data is recognised as central to your business, they will choose another company.”

The state of your data will also be a factor when attracting talent. SecretSales chief executive Nish Kukadia says data scientists are looking for large, structured datasets to work with. This can be an issue for multichannel retailers who often have complex, unstructured data.

Arnoux says: “It’s like having a messy bedroom that you have to clean before you can go to sleep. It’s not a healthy environment for data crunchers who will have to clear up that mess before they can get on with the fun stuff.”

Mid-management vacuum

Mid-level positions prove the most difficult to recruit, says Cranberry Panda. This reflects the fact that good candidates can progress really quickly and also a lack of training further down the ranks.

Technology evolves quickly in this arena and it is important for employers to invest to make sure their data team is up to speed on the latest techniques and platforms. Cranberry Panda’s latest salary survey showed that data analysis was one of the most common areas where candidates wanted to upskill.

N Brown has launched a new learning site called Glow, which gives employees access to a wide range of learning and development courses.

“The introduction of Glow along with the opportunity to learn new skills as we transform the business, means all colleagues are able to develop, and train in a huge variety of technical, behavioural or system based learning,” says Massingham.

glow 1

glow 1

N Brown has launched a new learning site called GLOW to boost digital skills in its business.

Farfetch also offers skills specific training and encourages teams to attend events and conferences, says Cakiroglu.

However, in many fashion retailers, data teams can be very small and lacking in senior experts to identify where skills are missing.

Hall recommends that retailers hire senior consultants or agencies to act as mentors for junior and mid-level staff to aid their development.

A key area where skills are missing is in interpretive analysis, says Kukadia: “A good data scientists is great at analytics but can translate it into commercial actions and present it to departments that aren’t data driven.”

Martins says very few are able to use data analysis to “tell stories”: “Any role that is part science and part art usually presents a formidable task when it comes to finding the right person.”

Hall says employers can help to build “softer” management skills such as presenting and leadership. N Brown plans to introduce a new leadership and management programme later this year to give new recruits the opportunity to widen their skillset.

Is the price right?

Another core reason for the skills gap, particularly at mid-management level, is salary. Retailers are competing with a wide range of sectors for these skills and often misjudge where to pitch their reward packages.

“In the retail sector, it still hasn’t kicked in that they often need to pay more than they think data analysts are worth,” says Hall.

Massingham says N Brown is aware that data expertise has a premium: “The digital market is incredibly buoyant as there are huge requirements across multiple sectors for people with the same skills. This drives up the cost of acquisition, and the amount that digital natives and specialists are able to achieve in the market.”

But as personalisation drives significant bottom line growth, many firms will be increasingly willing to break the bank for the talent driving these initiatives.

While fashion may not be the traditional career route for most data scientists the sector has many innovative workplaces and exciting projects to entice this talent. By finding the perfect fit, the rewards could be lucrative for both employee and recruiter.

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