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Upskilling is key to retail sector success

The debate about the health of the retail sector has intensified in recent years as more well-known names disappear from our high streets. However, the mood at the recent Omnichannel Futures Conference in London, hosted by The Retail Bulletin, was undeniably upbeat.

The key to success for retail businesses was acknowledged to be a combination of investing in technology, enhancing the in-store experience and putting upskilling and talent retention at the foundation of any growth strategy.

It was this latter point that Charlotte Rees-John, Irwin Mitchell’s Head of Consumer Goods and Services, emphasised when she took part in a panel discussion about the ‘store of the future’ and the challenges and opportunities presented by moving beyond bricks and mortar.

Whilst it is easy for retailers to focus on prices, improving the physical appeal of a building and enhancing the in-store experience felt by shoppers, unless there is investment in skills (particularly digital skills) the overall success of the business is likely to be limited, Charlotte argued.

This is because as brands operate in an increasingly omnichannel environment across physical retail and online (including apps, social media and mobile devices) the need for employees to use different technologies to engage with customers and meet their requirements increases significantly.

Today it is possible for customers to view a product via a social media platform, visit a store to handle it, make the actual purchase on a website and have it delivered to their workplace (and potentially return it to a different branch).

Retailers are becoming alive to this reality and this requires a major step-change in approach to customer service not to mention serious improvements to internal processes and back-end technology so that customers can enjoy their seamless omnichannel experience. 

The conference discussed how measuring return on investment in omnichannel retail can be problematic; monitoring sales by individual or branch for example becomes less relevant as the touchpoints with customers are more fragmented. Careful use of data can help to paint a picture of consumers but this needs to be available to staff in store as well as in head office. Lifetime value becomes more important as does a focus on customer satisfaction which drives loyalty and therefore repeat purchases.

Referencing recent CBI data which indicated nine in 10 workers are set to need some form of reskilling by 2030 and that one of the biggest challenges for the retail sector is employee turnover, Charlotte stressed the need for employers to look at how they improve workplace culture, team leadership and customer service whilst delivering on diversity and inclusion measures. 

“People buy people” is the saying. In an age of chatbots, frustrated online purchases and poor customer service, investing in a highly skilled team of people is now more important than ever.

A full review of the conference can be found on The Retail Bulletin website: Review: Omnichannel Futures 2023 | Retail Bulletin (

Physical stores will continue to be an important part of the retail landscape but they have to fit into a broader eco-system that delivers a relevant and seamless experience for customers across all channels.”