Changing retail landscape prompts drive for C-level talent

April 1, 2019

Retail is shifting to the forefront of technology innovation, and a need for high-quality executives is erupting.

Chain Store Age spoke with Melissa Reed, global partner at H.I. Executive Consulting, about the recent uptick in hiring of top-level technology executives in retail. High-profile examples this year include Levi Strauss appointing Vodafone data chief Katia Walsh as chief strategy and artificial intelligence officer and Pinterest tapping Walmart CTO Jeremy King as head of engineering.

“The push to hire C-level technology executives is a reflection of the state of the retail market,” said Reed. “Disruption is occurring as technology trends like data and artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), voice-enabled search, and automation mature.”

Because retail as a sector has historically not done a good job of building technology talent, Reed said now the industry needs to play catch-up to obtain the people it needs. Fortunately, she said retail is more appealing to highly qualified technology executives than it used to be.

“The state of the industry five to eight years ago was that retail was not really doing anything interesting in technology,” said Reed. “Retail was not an area where a visionary could build a career.”

In contrast, Reed said retail is now a great industry for forward-thinking technology disruptors to focus their career.

“Retailers now have visionary technology strategies and are making the investments to support them,” said Reed.

One potential obstacle still facing retailers seeking to hire talented C-level technology executives is where to find them.

“Do you need to be in retail to understand retail?” asked Reed. “That’s still a question.”

To help ensure that C-level technology hires from outside retail come in with a manageable learning curve, Reed recommends retailers search for talent in adjacent industries with a customer service mentality.

“Automotive and health care are leaders in how they use AI,” stated Reed. “Hospitality, travel and leisure have a customer focus similar to retail Financial services has always been linked to retail, but financial services executives may not be used to the ‘dark arts’ of retail. There are some suspicions of whether financial services veterans can get up to speed quickly in retail.”

Considering how customer-focused retail is, it is not surprising that Reed said expectations of technologically sophisticated consumers are driving the push toward IT leadership in retail.

“It’s an amazing time to be a customer,” commented Reed. “Customers have some many choices of products, retailers, and channels. They can integrate their online and offline lives. From the customer point of view, we are in a time of immense technological change.”

To meet the needs of the modern connected consumer, Reed said retailers have entered an “arms race” to attract the best technology executives and employees.

“Walmart has been a technology leader in retail for a number of years,” said Reed. “They hire good talent. Nordstrom also has a big focus on technology, hiring qualified data engineers and software engineers to build solutions in-house.”

Whether retailers outsource their technology development and infrastructure or build it in-house, Reed said they will still need to place the same importance on attracting high-level talent. And in the coming years, competition for the best technology employees will only intensify.

“During the next one to two years, a lot of retailers will become technology companies,” said Reed. “They need to broaden the talent pipeline. A lot of retailers are creating incubators where they grow entry-level talent internally.”

Of course, retaining top talent is just as critical as recruiting it. Although retailers may not be able to equal the compensation levels of some other industries, they do have some unique value propositions.

“It’s not difficult to come into a retailer and disrupt things fairly quickly,” said Reed. “Technology professionals like to solve problems and make a difference. You can create transformation and get results and recognition in a very tangible way. It’s a risk culture.”