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Automated Retail Demands All-Rounder Leaders

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

Implementing technology demands cross-functional collaboration.

In a retail industry where (for example) the commercial department might not talk too much with the operations team, the boundaries are being stripped down. To deliver the best service to the customer, multiple stakeholders are being forced to view the business through each others’ eyes.

Getting retail tech right requires leaders who can see the bigger picture.

Retail has traditionally been a sector where many different hands are required to move things in the right direction, hands that are primarily driven by self-interest. Marketing works out what the customer wants, Commercial sources and packages the right products, Supply Chain get in there in the right quantities, and Operations ensure the best possible store experience.

Each department does what is right for the customer from their point of view, but there is not always so much thought about the perspectives of other departments. When it comes to running a retail business, these (separate) silos all have to do their thing to ensure overall success. Each department has to be masters of their own arena, and cross-functional experience is therefore rare.

Then e-commerce came along.

Suddenly, the website team had a whole set of fresh challenges. Online trading is drastically different from running a physical store. Online leaders require a far more rounded skillset than their other counterparts, and even though e-commerce has been around for a while now, true all-rounders are still rare in this space. We regularly take on assignments for E-Commerce Directors, and I can say that due to the specialised nature of retail, the majority of early careers were spent in one function. Cross-functional experience was (is) rare.

Now the next wave of change is upon us.

There are not many functions within retail that technology is not transforming. Marketing will be able to day trip into the customer psyche, commercial decisions will be driven by AI-informed data, augmented reality will make the store experience unrecognisable.  There are many more examples, but the key thread amongst all this is that the “standalone” retail functions need to be ever more closely aligned.

All-rounder leaders will need to get their functional teams to collaborate like never before.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact trajectory of events as so many innovations are being tested, but one thing is for sure; the retailers who make the best use of technology will be the retailers who understand what each other is doing.

It is interesting how many current board members of leading retailers have risen through the ranks, often starting on their company’s graduate scheme. John Lewis’ first female Managing Director Paula Nickolds is just one example. These schemes seek to move grads around the business, increasing their understanding of the bigger picture in the hope that they might make a wider impact one day. In the face of the current technological changes, I would suggest that retailers should be moulding a new cadre of retail leaders much in the same way.

  • A marketing expert with a deep understanding of how people shop inside the stores will be perfectly placed to work on an augmented reality project.

  • A buyer who is informed by targeted marketing data will make better purchasing decisions.

  • A warehouse manager who understands the possibilities and limitations of an automated supply chain will run a more effective operation.

Do you think that success in retail technology requires a more rounded management approach?

Or is it best that each function considers their own interests?

Email me your thoughts.

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