Retail technology view from the top: SAS's Andrew Fowkes

As new systems and digital capability continue to evolve the way retailers run their businesses, Essential Retail is gauging the views of the sector's main figureheads, via a series of exclusive interviews. This week, it's the turn of SAS's EMEA retail solutions director, Andrew Fowkes.

Attending an industry event last week Essential Retail got talking to a data analyst who works for a major high street fashion retailer.

When we asked him about his thoughts on the data and analytics skills gap in retail that we've heard so much about in recent weeks, including in a recent report from the government's UK Commission for Employment & Skills, he was naturally happy to be in demand and suggested that his role within his organisation has quickly extended from eCommerce analyst to covering more areas of the business.

This particular retail professional had studied mechanical engineering at university before finding his way into the heart of the UK retail industry, and it is this calibre of staff that the wider retail industry is increasingly going to look towards as companies aim to use data analytics for the betterment of their businesses and to offer more personalised customer experiences.

Andrew Fowkes, EMEA retail solutions director for technology company SAS, told Essential Retail that "one of the biggest stumbling blocks in retail" is organisations are not typically set up to get the best value from the data specialists.

He said: "Some are doing a better job than others, but there are some floundering, paying out a lot of money to people who have the skills but actually when they land in the retailer they are stranded on an island because they don't really fit with the culture of the retailer."

Fowkes advises that to successfully introduce data analysts to their companies, retailers should give them a "brand" in the business, informing other staff how they are going to add value to existing operations and join up some of the internal silos.

However, a data scientist alone is not going to be able to look at a whole spec of retailer data and generate insight for that business – they typically need to be supported by someone who can interpret the organisation's wider big business questions.

"You need some skills that are data scientist-labelled in terms of understanding data and managing it through technology, but you need the business balance," said the SAS director.

"Business Insights teams have worked well when the leader of that team is at the coalface of the business – in store operations or the buying division, for example – and they have people in their team who can interpret the data and get it to a point where it can actually be utilised and put into a predictive state."

It's not just retail that needs people with the relevant analytical and scientific skills to progress in an increasingly digital world; it's a talent shortage that spans multiple industries.

The question that follows is how do long-established retailers, which are not traditionally associated with technological innovation and digital, attract this new talent to their industry? The Amazons, Googles, Facebooks and various start-ups of this world, which continue to disrupt the business status quo, are naturally attractive propositions for hungry and ambitious graduates entering today's job market. Why would data experts and PhD students want to enter old-fashioned retailing?

Retail has to make itself more attractive in terms of its appreciation of what data is for the business, according to Fowkes, who argues that the businesses that will capture the "right kind of people" are the ones already talking about the mix of data, and measuring its impact across stores and online.

"Retail is a very data rich industry and always has been, but it's not actually conditioned to use it," he added.

"The winners in the industry historically have been the buyers who are using their gut feel and market trader instincts to drive the business, but we're in a new era where you've got to start to show people that you can sponsor and really get [data analysts] to be successful in the business. You will see stronger directorships for people who have come up that side of the business and who understand the dynamics of data."

With a recent survey from Ranstad Business Support suggesting that starting salary levels have grown in importance for retail workers over the last three years – with 20% of new starters in 2015 citing this as a top factor in attracting them to the job compared to 9% in 2012 – perhaps it's a case of 'show me the money'. Like in any industry, if you want the best people you have to invest sufficiently.

Fowkes says the typical data-related job salary is some way below that of the average IT team leader, and he suggests that as this area of expertise grows in importance for retailers there could be scope for better rewards.

"Retailers haven't always been forward in paying the right amount of money to people and rewarding them," he remarked.

"Maybe there are questions here; if you want to grow that skill in house and have people adopt the data and get value then you also have to pay the right kind of salary to reflect their contribution."

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