RBTE 2015: Leaders need digital and fundamental retail skills

Despite digital impacting massively on the retail sector there is still a requirement for the traditional skills of retail to be understood by today's leaders in the sector, delegates at RBTE 2015 heard on Tuesday.

Speaking as part of a retail leaders panel debate – chaired by Stephen Robertson, non-executive director of Timpson – Simon Belsham, managing director of grocery home shopping at Tesco, suggested the industry had previously moved into being about property but that eCommerce has heralded a "rebirth of traditional skills with the fundamentals of retail not changing".

He acknowledged that new skills are needed – with decisions being made using data science and analytics – and that things are changing dramatically, but retail basics are still to be found and the customer is at the heart of this.

Steve Rowe, executive director of food at Marks & Spencer, agreed digital is having a big impact and "pervades everything". He added: "You can't ignore it and some of these skill sets did not exist a few years ago. The skills required are much more difficult and technical and you need a deep insight into customers – underpinned by technology."

Belsham said this customer focus is paramount and suggests that while technical skills are needed the candidates for future leadership roles have to know about customers. An empathy with shoppers and colleagues is therefore a necessity.

Despite the increased complexity that digital has brought to retail businesses, Catriona Marshall, CEO of Hobbycraft, said a key skill of leaders is to be an "advocate of simplicity". She added: "Clarity comes from simplicity and you need to be clear about where you are taking the business. You need to focus your energy on this, which should be consumer-led."

Simon Roberts, executive vice president of Walgreen Boots Alliance, agreed that the customer remains king and points to the fact Boots asks 25,000 of its customers each week their views on the business. Such is the power of this insight that he says the results correlate to sales in its stores.