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The future of retail is people-powered.

There’s no doubt that technologies like artificial intelligence and analytics are helping retailers to deliver more personalised and responsive experiences to shoppers. From recommendations to auto-replenishment and more, retailers are now able to make shoppers’ lives easier and more convenient, as well as getting closer to each individual to give them what they want in any moment and through the right channel. Accenture research shows that nearly three-quarters of retail executives agree that adopting intelligent technologies is going to be critical to their ability to differentiate in the market.

Power to the people

The impact that technology is having on shoppers is clear. But what about another group of key people: the retail workforce? With smart technologies and automation taking care of routine and repetitive tasks, the workforce is potentially freed to focus on customer-facing activities. That means, for example, that in-store personnel can become brand ambassadors offering shoppers a whole new level of personal attention and product knowledge. Behind the scenes, staff can focus their time on adding value by curating new experiences and inventing new offerings based on the flow of insights made possible from advanced analytics, extracting ever-more revealing information about customers’ changing needs and preferences. In short, a retail workforce empowered by new technology can become a powerful engine of growth and differentiation.  

The aspiration gap

However, to realise those gains requires retail leaders to comprehensively rethink their workforce strategies. In order to harness the potential of people and smart machines working together, the workforce needs new tools, training and support. But our research shows that there is a sizeable gap between where retail executives want to be and the plans they’re making to reach their desired destination. For example, well over half (59%) of retail employees believe that AI will encourage them to be more creative and innovative. Less than one-third of employers say that their staff are ready to use AI. Training looks like the obvious solution to get employees ready to embrace the valuable new ways of working AI promises. Yet while 63% of leaders identify a growing skills gap as the top trend influencing their workforce strategy, only 4% of retail leaders say that they plan to increase their investment in reskilling programs.

Power up the workforce

It’s clear that retail executives want to harness the power of intelligent technologies and retail staff are equally eager to take advantage. It’s a clear win-win. And to secure it, retail leaders need to move forward by taking four decisive steps.

  • First, they need to embrace the power of technology by investing in ‘human+machine’ collaboration. Leading business area already seeing the gains from doing so, with the top performers expected to grow revenues by 41% between 2018 and 2022. One example of a retailer that’s seeing the profitable impact of AI on its workforce is the Japanese business, Fast Retailing. Its shop assistants use an AI-enabled device that gives them real-time data on inventory, orders and returns, which frees them up to interact knowledgeably with customers. 

  • Next, retailers need to rethink their workforce model by re-examining the skills their employees need to deliver on their purpose and offer customers a differentiated experience. That rethink needs to encompass not only skills development, but how work is shared, the way teams are assembled and the design of performance, rewards and career paths.

  • Retailers should also think hard about the people they’ll require to meet fast-changing objectives. Many will already be inside the organisation. But some more specialized resources will only ever be available from tapping into wider talent ecosystems - and technology can help here, too. AI will be able to identify the right person for specific initiative from a broad pool of employees, contractors and freelancers and automatically offer them the opportunity.

  • And finally, retailers need to target as diverse a workforce as possible. A diverse and inclusive workforce not only mirrors the wider customer base, it’s also likely to be more productive and a source of innovation. Leaders should be measured and rewarded for meeting diversity and inclusion ambitions, monitoring the talent pipeline to check attrition and promotion rates are on target.

Technology is clearly transforming retail experiences for customers, but that’s only half the story. Retailers that are able to empower their people to work in new ways will see the rewards in growth and differentiation as well as a more engaged, loyal and productive workforce. And that’s a real game-changer.

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