The rise of digital has completely transformed the retail landscape, bringing with it a raft of new opportunities – and challenges – for companies to grapple with. Not least among these is the emergence of a new generation of ‘asset-light’, pureplay ecommerce businesses, which have dramatically ratcheted up the level of competition in the market – played out with increasing frequency in the headlines as formerly unassailable high street staples like BHS and HMV have succumbed to digital competition.
In this new, digital-first landscape, physical assets are now less valuable than they once were, whether that’s owning a bricks-and-mortar store on the high street – as demonstrated by online pureplays – or owning any physical stock at all, as we’ve seen with marketplaces such as Farfetch and Zalando. This trend is now extending to the workforce itself, and the retail sector, along with many others, is feeling this shift – spelling an end to the notion of all staff needing to be in-house and on-site.
The concept of ‘work’ has fundamentally changed over the last 20 years. Connected employees are working on their own terms; they rarely stay in the same careers for their whole lives, and the typical configuration of 9-5 office hours is fast on its way to becoming obsolete. A new approach to work-life has emerged that is more collaborative, technology-enabled and flexible, and – as well as offering clear lifestyle benefits to staff – it is allowing businesses to tap into specialist expertise located around the world. Crucially, it’s also forcing many organisations to reconsider how they source and retain talent, and plan for the future.
For traditional retail businesses in particular, in the context of increased competition and disruption from lean, asset-light, digital-first firms, the conventional model of keeping all business functions and staff in-house is now far too inflexible, expensive and inefficient – so how can legacy brands capitalise on the fluidity of the on-demand workforce to thrive and win?
Stick to what you’re best at
Very few businesses are designed to be excellent at everything, and this precept of course applies to retailers as well. Brands need to focus on the core competencies that they are expert at – for example, buying or manufacturing high-quality goods and providing top-notch customer service across multiple channels – and seek to outsource other, non-core business functions (for example, multi-language content production) to skilled specialists that can provide niche expertise when required.
According to the Accenture Technology Vision 2017 report, ‘talent marketplaces’ (defined as organisations that connect freelance professionals with businesses to fill specific skills gaps or business functions) will replace traditional models of work in the next five years. Tapping into this on-demand workforce will not only provide retailers with access to highly specialised skillsets, but also reduce fixed overheads and improve efficiency by complementing existing internal resources.
This is a strategy that many innovative retailers and marketplaces are already employing to their advantage: in a recent conversation I had with eBay UK’s marketing director, Gareth Jones, at the 2018 Retail Week Live event, he commented “we [eBay] are increasingly tapping into work supply marketplaces to augment our existing staff and capabilities”.
Adopt a ‘humans in the loop’ approach to AI
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a hugely exciting domain, the potential of which is only just beginning to be realised. However, despite all the rhetoric around machines replacing humans, it’s clear that AI is not going to solve every problem. At Quill, we believe AI works best when it’s applied to leverage human talent, rather than replace it, in what we call a ‘humans in the loop’ approach.
The key to unlocking efficiencies through AI for retailers will lie in identifying the manual and repetitive tasks that are ripe for automation, and then applying technology to those, thereby freeing up employees’ time to focus on higher-level strategy and business functions that require emotional acuity, creativity, imagination and relationship-building.
One of the most obvious areas that retailers can apply AI (and which many already are) is in the use of chatbots for customer service. A notable example is the US floristry brand 1800-Flowers, which has developed a Facebook Messenger-based concierge bot, enabling customers to make fast orders and receive product recommendations via an automated chat interface – a ploy that has broadened the company’s customer base (over 70% of its chatbot orders have been from new customers, according to Digiday) and generated efficiencies by reducing the number of support queries directed at human staff.
Be more flexible
Skilled workers across the world are now prioritising flexibility in their work-life and will be looking for careers that they can shape and mould around their lives more easily. With this in mind, retailers looking to hold on to their A-player talent should seriously consider revamping old organisational structures; moving away from the outdated thinking that every employee must be housed under one roof.
This is a principle we firmly believe in at Quill, which is why we’ve structured our business around a network of over 2,000 freelance content specialists, located remotely in countries around the world, connected by an intelligent technology platform which dynamically deploys them to relevant client projects.
This unique model enables our freelancers to work from any location they like (be it Brighton or Bali), to flexibly manage their workloads and to work across a range of exciting clients and projects. At the same time, this dispersed talent model enables us to produce high-quality content at unparalleled speed and scale for our clients – precisely because we’re not limited by having to retain all of our staff in-house.
Against a backdrop of declining consumer confidence, troubling times for the high street and the massive migration of consumer spend from offline to online, traditional retailers need to adapt and innovate to remain viable. Dispensing with unwieldy organisational structures, increasing flexibility and agility, embracing technology, and tapping into the on-demand workforce will all be critical steps on the journey to digital transformation.
Ed Bussey, CEO of Primary Content specialists Quill, a company that specialises in quality content creation in any topic, format or language, helping businesses to drive online sales.