The digital mindset: Spread the love and court elsewhere

As retail executives, our people come first: finding, training, mentoring, helping them grow to get to the next level and realize a fulfilling career in an industry we love. Our people are absolutely crucial to delivering on customer expectations. And, as we all know, those expectations only continue to rise.

Our biggest job now as retail leaders is to develop our people to become as “digitally fluent” as our customers. No doubt you already have an experienced digital team running your e-commerce business. So what’s the big lesson from Neiman Marcus recently integrating many of its online and store teams and functions, particularly in merchandising? Quite simply, “digital” needs to become deeply embedded throughout every part of your organization. And while marketing and merchandising are obvious places to do this, you’re going to need digital chops just as much in IT, HR, operations, supply chain and beyond. Think about it: digital fluency has to be company-wide, as this is the language your customers already speak fluently and expect everyone in your organization to easily converse in as well.

The kicker: there isn’t enough ready-made digital talent available in our industry to adequately go around. This talent scarcity is the challenge that the Shop.org Think Tank recently examined in a report titled “Open Letter to the Retail CEO: Is Your Talent Mix Right? The Future of Your Business Depends on It.” Their advice: better leverage the digital talent you already have in-house, and start figuring out how to bring digital experts from outside the retail industry into your organization.

Let’s start with the digital expertise you already have. These individuals already understand your customer and culture, likely have relationships with other functional areas, and know where they fit into the strategic objectives for the company. But if you’ve kept them largely segmented from the rest of the organization, you’re missing significant opportunities to get far more from them. Take HR. Does your HR team mostly focus on store and seasonal recruiting? Do they know anything much about the deep digital capabilities your company needs right now and will need further over the next two, three, five, even 10 years to meet your strategic and financial objectives? If you have digital experts resident throughout your organization rather than segmented, they can help lead other teams in understanding digital while they, in turn, learn much more about those functional areas.

Leveraging internal digital talent is a huge step forward for many retailers, but, given the scarcity of digital retail experts in the marketplace, it’s only part of the solution. Retail companies need to get comfortable quickly with bringing digital experts into the organization who might not have any retail background at all. I know what you’re thinking — this won’t be easy. Executed thoughtfully, however, you stand to develop a new cadre of digital veterans to imbue your functional experts with their expertise — and vice versa. These digital experts might never have thought about retail before and likely don’t know how dynamic and fast-changing this industry is or the scale on which they can tackle things like cloud computing, data and analytics, global and much more — all things digital folks are pretty excited about. Of course, you’ll need to be ready to convince them that retail — and your company in particular — is the epicenter of major disruption (digital veterans read disruption as “opportunity”) and significant change on a scale that few other sectors can match. You’ll also need to demonstrate that your senior leadership team is 100% behind this evolution, with technology and people investment commitments and financial rewards to back that up. They might be worried about moving from a perceived tech center such as Silicon Valley — but also excited about creating direct change for many millions of consumers (just like them).

Internally, this process will be messy, uncomfortable and, yes, “disruptive” — both for your existing team as well as your digital recruits. I’d say that’s probably a healthy sign, as difficult as it can be to manage day to day. Ultimately, if your people aren’t digitally fluent, how can you expect them to deliver on what your customers expect from you — now, next year, and much longer term?


Vicki Cantrell is executive director of Shop.org, the digital division of the National Retail Federation.