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Upskilling for success

The Retail Leader Apprenticeship Degree combines academic learning with practical experience

The Retail Leader Apprenticeship Degree combines academic learning with practical experience

The right people with the best skills and experience are crucial to every part of the retail organisation. Emma Herrod investigates what retailers are doing to keep staff at the cutting edge of ecommerce.

2018 was a bleak year for some job roles in retail while for others there have been retailers crying out for their skills. Stores have closed while ecommerce teams have been saved. In 2012, it was mobile skills – and more specifically experience in the channel – that was in short supply.

As big data became the transformation point within the industry so the cry went up for data analysts. The past year has seen retailers recruiting social media marketers who are able to apply a PPC model to content on channels such as Instagram, according to Patrick Tame, founder of recruitment consultancy Beringer Tame.

“Companies complaining of a shortage of high-calibre individuals with the right experience is nothing new. I think it was always thus,” says Tame. “It’s the single most difficult thing to get right,” he adds, and there is always competition for the best people.

He also points out though that the best people on paper may not be the right ones for the business and sometimes it’s better for a retailer to look at a job role differently than just a list of boxes to tick. The person with the right motivation and transferable skills may already be working for the company.

As the industry changes, so does the strain on recruitment with those in the key roles having to not only attract personnel with the right skills and experience to fill the changing gaps but also to retain existing staff.

Marks & Spencer, for example, is in the process of upskilling 1,000 members of staff as part of a data skills initiative which aims to create data skilled leaders who are able to lead digital transformation across the business. The Data Leadership programme enables them to get hands-on with technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. The retailer believes that the programme will give it the most data-literate leadership team in retail.

The M&S Data Academy, being run by digital training company Decoded, is open to employees from every area of the retail organisation – from store managers and visual merchandisers to finance and buying. M&S staff can join an 18 month in-work data science skills programme which will teach them how to harness data analytics tools such as R and Python and adopt technologies such as machine learning. Learners will finish the programme with a data analytics qualification accredited by the British Computing Society.

“This is our biggest digital investment in our people to date and the creation of the M&S Data Academy will upskill colleagues and provide them with an in-depth level of digital literacy as well as a Data Analytics qualification. Transformation of our business is key to survival and a huge part of this lies with our colleagues. We need to change their digital behaviours, mindsets and our culture to make the business fit for the digital age and our partnership with Decoded will enable us to do this,” says Steve Rowe, Chief Executive, M&S.

The training is funded by the Apprenticeship Levy, the billion pound fund created by the Government to help upskill the UK workforce.

M&S is not alone in trying to alleviate the skills gap. More than a quarter (27%) of UK retailers fear they don’t have the right expertise in their existing workforce to utilise artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies effectively, according to a survey by VoucherCodes UK. Surprisingly, securing digital talent ranked higher than knowledge of big data (19%), achieving buy-in from the wider business (15%) and the cost of financial investment (9%). Only “establishing a seamless omnichannel experience” ranked higher amongst retail respondents.

“AI and other digital innovations are transforming the shopping experience, and retailers are understandably concerned that they can’t find the right skills from their employees to fully maximise these rapidly growing technologies,” says Greig Danes, VP of Engineering at

Retailers are also recognising that having people with the right mindset for the business is just as important as recruiting in the skills. “There is demand for good staff, so talk to yours,” says Tame.

At work, people need to feel that they have purpose and meaning, are valued and feel that they have a future. If there isn’t a definite career path they will go elsewhere – especially if recruiters such as Tame are speaking to them every three months.

Shoe retailer Schuh is another leading retailer taking an active role in continuing to develop its workforce to ensure that it progresses as digital continues to develop. Staff in the ecommerce team can choose to undertake training modules in the skills required by the organisation, explains Sean McKee, Director of Ecommerce and Customer Experience, Schuh. There is also a financial incentive for staff to undertake the training so it also provides another way to help with staff retention, he explains. It shows them that “learning is good, it pays and we’d like you to stay,” he says.

Alex Murray, Digital Director – UK, Lidl, who also took part in a panel discussion on skills at the InternetRetailing Conference, believes that there are still fewer people in the industry than are required. “Finding people isn’t difficult. Retaining them is tricky,” he says. The ecommerce market offers candidates so many opportunities so businesses have to not only find talent but work out what matters to those people in order to give them a real sense of purpose at work. “Autonomy, learning and development is crucial,” he said.

Paul Sulyok, Founder and CEO of Greenman Gaming agreed: “Engineers like challenges and working to solve problems,” so retailers need to provide a mentally-enthralling environment and a loose management structure that allows them freedom. They also need “a fun culture and something they are proud to be involved in,” he added.

When it comes to having loose leadership, Sulyok believes that if you give someone responsibility and treat them in a way that they can make a decision you get the best out of them.
Other possible solutions mooted by the panel to help with retention in the industry included increasing flexibility and moving to day rates rather than traditional working structures. Selling these ideas to a traditional HR department may be hard though.


As the transformation of retail from the high street to omnichannel has shown, change cannot happen if it’s not supported and lead from the top of the organisation. Ecommerce has reached the board of UK retail through a mix of people moving between retailers as well as those who have moved up the ranks internally.

While the M&S Data Academy takes training in house, for others, there are external courses such as the newly launched Retail Leader Apprenticeship Degree. Apprentices will work full-time, while studying towards a Bachelor of Arts degree, accredited at their chosen university. The programme is aimed at developing apprentices’ strategic, technical, managerial and leadership skills.

Academic learning is integrated with practical on-the-job experience with a blended approach to learning combining face-to-face training days with online learning, research and assessment activities. Business projects, negotiated with employers, offer the apprentice the opportunity to apply their learning directly to their organisation and its business needs.

The level 6 degree has been set up by the retail trade charity retailTRUST, in collaboration with a group of retailers and the government. The programme will start later this year with at least 400 retail employees.

One of the retailers involved in the Apprenticeship Degree is Dunelm Group. The company’s People and Services Director Amanda Cox, comments: “This is a real legacy moment for retail – showing through a work-based degree how important retail is as a sector and the amazing careers that people can have within it. I look forward to seeing our first colleagues go through this programme and the skills this gives them to fast track their careers, as well as unlocking their true potential.”

Ecommerce growth will continue to put requirements on retailers to develop digital skills. As digital spreads further across the retail organisation, everyone’s skill set will be impacted whether they are in a customer-facing role or working behind the scenes. Skills can be learnt but it’s the people with experience in the next ‘big thing’ that will always be in demand and as retailers push to innovate it is in their interest to create opportunities for those taken on at the cutting edge to stay up with developments. It might also help to keep them with you.

This can only be a good thing when you consider the important role that people have in making the difference between the technologies that are available to any retailer.


Leadership is more than a skill-set as a retail leadership team needs to be flexible of mind, to enable innovation and not stifle change since new disruptive pureplays will be thinking about things differently. As Julien Callede, co-founder of told delegates at the InternetRetailing Conference “When you start a digital company the one thing we need is to think differently”.

He explained that retailers shouldn’t become stuck doing things in a certain way because that is how they have been done in the past – or in a way that they are done by other retailers. “With experience comes comfort. If you are too comfortable you won’t innovate. You have to be agile, rethink how you do things,” he said.

He believes that experienced people have to be willing to disrupt their own business.
At, the main role of the board is to ensure that the company continues to grow in a sustainable way, but it also has to bring new ideas into the business. “Every year, one of our targets is to find new developments/products that will bring x% of next year’s revenue to the business,” he says.

Jonathan Wall, then CDO at Missguided, believes that when it comes to innovation “an inquisitive mindset is the number one skill needed.”

Recruiters need to understand how a candidate’s mind works. Analysts, for example, should come back with questions and further tests to run, not just answers, he says.

This inquisitive mindset is one of the skills that he believes will be necessary in retail by 2023. “A leaders role is to give clarity of purpose,” he says. Talking about the leadership team at his former company Shop Direct, he explained that the leadership team ensured that everyone understood the Shop Direct ethos and what success looks like.

Innovation, can come from anywhere in the business, just ask a 27 year-old store manager how technology could change the high street. As retail organisations become less siloed in their operations, responsibility for ecommerce logistics will be handed to a logistics team, ecommerce buying to a central buying team and the ecommerce lead will become a Digital Product Director and stretch across the different functions. They will become a ‘customer’ of the rest of the business and it will free up their time to innovate further with 90% of their time spent on marginal gains and 10% on the big innovative projects, explains Patrick Tame.

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