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How retailers are attracting and retaining tech talent

The value of a strong technology team in retail is difficult to overstate. As customers move online, retailers and fashion businesses must ensure they are on top tech form to stay competitive in the modern business landscape – and the foundations of that come from a talented tech team.
Written on 10/15/19

In a competitive market, what can retailers and fashion businesses do to recruit and nurture the next generation of talented technology professionals?

The value of a strong technology team in retail is difficult to overstate. As customers move online, retailers and fashion businesses must ensure they are on top tech form to stay competitive in the modern business landscape – and the foundations of that come from a talented tech team.

The skills of data scientists, code engineers and UX (user experience) specialists are in high demand across industries as diverse – and high-paying – as banking, financial services and manufacturing. Retailers face stiff competition when it comes to attracting and retaining the best of the best.

However, as the desires of a young workforce shift, the fashion industry can provide a platform for ambitious tech specialists seeking to work on projects with immediate, tangible and far-reaching impacts.

Seeking a challenge

“Tech candidates look for companies that are revolutionary in their fields,” explains Anna Sousa, global people strategy director at luxury etailer Farfetch. “People look for challenging roles, something that is new, exciting and challenging, rather than just cosy and comfortable. Some of the technology that Farfetch is developing is shaping the future of commerce. It’s a fantastic opportunity to be part of something so important.”

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As technology is a relatively new string to some fashion retailers’ bows, specialists have an opportunity to shape the future of shopping,  whether at a fashion-focused business where tech is integral, such as Farfetch, or at a high street retailer. 

“New technology is rapidly transforming retail, which gives rise to new challenges and opportunities to test eager tech specialists,” explains Helen Miller, talent, culture and communications director at Shop Direct, owner of and Littlewoods.

She notes that the fast pace of modern retail appeals to a workforce where instant gratification and results are key, she explains: “For tech people who like to build things, solve problems and make a difference, retail is a great sector to work in.

What inspires the young workforce doesn’t tend to be financial growth

Chris Wilkinson, Depop

“Etail is instant. If a member of our team makes a change to the website, the conversion effect is felt immediately – that’s the kind of impact young tech specialists are looking for.”

On a mission

Another important factor for tech specialists seeking new positions is the company mission – this is something  that fashion and retail companies can use as leverage over their competitors.

“What inspires the young workforce doesn’t tend to be financial growth,” says Chris Wilkinson, director of people at shopping platform Depop. “Our tech hires aren’t just interested in the tech base and the [coding] language that we use: they’re not detached from the overall mission. The tech talent that doesn’t really care about that will typically go and work for the banks.

“We can’t win those people over because we cannot compete with those [salaries], and we have to be frank about that. What we can do is really communicate our mission and our culture.”

He highlights the importance of making this message clear, whether through LinkedIn, workplace review site Glassdoor or wider company activities and publicity.

Shop Direct’s Miller agrees: “We’ve got a clear purpose, we’re values led and we try to create the best working environment for colleagues. These are important selling points when hiring anyone, and tech experts are no different. We’ve found tech experts really want to work somewhere they can make a difference.”

Historically, fashion and retail companies have struggled to fully integrate tech into their businesses. Corporate business structures make it difficult to innovate at speed on the engaging projects that tech professionals crave.

Technology needs to be at the heart of retail, alongside the passion for the product and the ultimate respect for the consumer

Lisa Bridgett, The Modist

“Large, corporate retailers are very slow to get anything done, and the management structure holds things back,” adds Depop’s Wilkinson. “We hear talent coming to us and saying that they’re sick of the larger environment. Everything is slow, and you have to jump through so many hoops to get approval, or sometimes business leaders don’t understand technology.”

Lisa Bridgett, chief operating officer at luxury ecommerce site The Modist agrees: “Traditional businesses that don’t get the value of technology – or understand it – will find it hard to create the right environment for technologists to thrive. Technology needs to be at the heart of retail, alongside the passion for the product and the ultimate respect for the consumer. This is the formula for success in today’s future retail space.”

Lucy Shilling, talent manager at menswear personal styling website Thread, also notes the importance of integrating technology throughout the business.

“We’re using technology to disrupt the status quo,” she says. “It’s not something we’re trying to bolt into a historical business, or which sits under more traditional teams in the pecking order. We’ve built our company with technical talent at the core of what we’re trying to achieve, and we’ve committed to creating a culture that enables fashion and tech to closely collaborate. It makes both stronger.”

Wilkinson adds: “Larger retailers need to be thinking about how they can speed up the tech development piece and empower their tech specialists more, to make their businesses a more appealing place to work.”

“There is also the innovation piece. Not every project has to be sexy and interesting, but at least try to get some innovative stuff in there from a tech development perspective. That would really help to attract more people to the business.”

In collaborative environments, talent attracts talent. Making strong hires in key positions is one way to bolster a team.

“World-class engineers want to work with other world-class engineers on projects that challenge them, and, above all, in an environment that values their contributions,” says Shilling. “Our engineering, data science and product teams get to work closely with our styling and other creative teams across the business. This level of collaboration wouldn’t always be possible in traditional or larger-scale technology companies.”

Finding employees who believe in the goals of the business is the key to retaining them in the long term. Beyond that, however, flexibility and personal development are core to creating a culture that nurtures talent.

“Employees value a more relaxed working environment, so we operate flexible working and holiday policies, where we trust employees to work when they feel most productive and to a schedule that suits them,” explains Shilling. “They also value an environment which prioritises learning and personal growth, so everyone has regular one-to-ones with their managers to discuss how to develop, are encouraged to attend conferences, and we host regular ‘lunch and learns’ so that our tech team can be exposed to new ideas.

“We also run regular hack days, which encourages them to work cross-team and gives them an insight into other areas of the business and, importantly, the impact that they have outside their specific area of focus. We find these help to create a real sense of empathy and also satisfaction in their work.”

Farfetch london office image courtesy farfetch (3)

The Farfetch London office

Encouraging personal learning and development is a similarly high priority for Farfetch.

“Investing in people is very important for us. And investing in people also means that we must give them the development opportunities they deserve,” explains Sousa. “So, knowing everyone personally and what they want to achieve helps us understand who that person is and what might be the adequate next step for her or him regarding career and development.

For those aiming to recruit, tech integration and empowerment, innovation potential and a focus on growth and development – both professional and personal – should be top priorities. Although the market remains competitive, a focus on these areas mean retailers and fashion businesses should be well placed to attract the next generation of compassionate, ambitious and creative tech talent.