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Head// Retail’s revolution: the changing face of fashion

Standfirst// The fashion retail industry is changing at breakneck speed, and the workforce is shifting swiftly to keep up with the developments.
Written on 11/12/19

Standfirst// The fashion retail industry is changing at breakneck speed, and the workforce is shifting swiftly to keep up with the developments.


Over the past 10 years fashion retail has undergone a vast transformation, as the advent of digital redefined the way people shop and as a consequence - how fashion retail functions.

As developments continue at a consistently rapid pace, retailers and brands old and new, are battling to ensure their businesses and workforces are fit for the future.

The customer has more power than ever before, and new roles are emerging to help retailers cater to their demands and ensure that businesses hold up against ever more rigorous competition and scrutiny.

Digital disruption

The dominant changes in the fashion retail sector revolve closely around the demanding, digital shopper.

Nicola Wensley, partner at recruitment agency Page Executive, notes that in order to ensure retailers match customer expectations across multiple channels, forward -looking business are building up their tech teams.

 “Savvy companies are investing and strengthening their data teams to support this pace of change,” she says. “With the unstoppable march of technology, particularly around AI and automation, the pace of change is only expected to accelerate as we enter the next decade and it will inevitably be challenging.”

The customer centric, data-focused approach is impacting roles across all levels: from the shop floor to the C-suite. 

Roles in performance marketing, data analytics and customer experience are on the rise, according to Wensley, and the growth of high-level customer focused roles such as chief customer officer is symptomatic of an industry that is increasingly driven by customer action.

Fran Minogue managing partner of headhunter Clarity Search, explains. “One of the biggest changes [in the industry] has been the recognition that [retail] should be a pull, not a push model. You have to work from the consumer backwards, not just producing something and then trying to sell it,” she explains.

“Therefore the chief customer officer is becoming far more powerful. They are the champion of the customer: they are informing the business about the trends: what the customer segments are that they should be targeting and servicing, and how to go about that.”

On the shop floor, roles have also been altered hugely. As shoppers move online, the rise in experiential stores, which act as a branding tool for fashion businesses, means store staff have more of a brand ambassador function.

“Store roles are more to showcase the brand and redirect customers to online,” explains Caroline Pill, vice-president at headhunter Kirk Palmer Associates. “Stores are moving away from a commission-based structure [for employees] and instead retailers are hiring people who are telling the story of the brand.”

New and changing roles

While digital specific roles are pivotal to businesses – digital has also shifted the way traditional roles function .

Buying and merchandising now requires a joined-up approach to ensure a successful offer across stores and online. “These roles are becoming less siloed, with businesses now looking for individuals that can be creative but also commercial,” notes Victoria Nightingale, partner and head of UK operations at Barracuda Search. 

Elsewhere in the sector, the demand for visual merchandisers is crumbling. Instead, store merchandising is dictated at a company-wide level or on an ad hoc basis – cutting costs and making for a consistent brand message.

Megan Bridger, managing consultant at fashion recruitment specialist Four Seasons says she has seen a significant decline in visual merchandising roles. “Instead, store managers and sales staff are now trained and responsible for following VM guidelines on a day to day basis,” she says. “It is now becoming more common to hire a visual merchandiser on a freelance basis for projects and training.”

Digital domination has also led to store closures and a decline in retail operations roles. “With the consolidation of store portfolios and lack of investment, [retail] roles have become smaller in remit and focus at senior levels has been to have accountability for the customer rather than the channel,” explains Wensley.

Minogue agrees but stresses that the value of the function should not be overlooked. “Everyone is investing so much in online and tech that people have neglected stores,” she says. “People who know how to run a store, motivate staff and engage with customers appropriately are still highly prized.”

What the workforce wants

In the modern age, retail and fashion businesses not only have to cater to a demanding consumer base, but also an increasingly demanding workforce – one which is looking for more from their roles than previous generations. Flexible working and added perks are all expected by the younger generation of retail professionals.

“People are far more aware of their work-life balance than before,” says Nightingale. “The younger generation also look for something different; a gym or fitness activities, food provisions, wellbeing initiatives, as well as flexibility with working hours are all questioned.”

Today’s shifts in the retail workforce are driven by the overarching developments digital and technology have wrought across all aspects of retail – from consumer expectations and accountability, through to ecommerce and data driven learnings. No longer a separate function, digital is deeply embedded into the way people shop, the way retailers do business and what the workforce expects from fashion retail employers.