Depending on your preferred side of the optimism/pessimism street, the future is either something to worry about, or something to anticipate eagerly. What is true either way is that we don’t really know what will be coming along. However, we do know a few things: there will still be a need for highly qualified retail professionals, and there are skills we can build now to help be prepared for whatever the future retail world looks like.
1. Tech Savvy
If you have a Prime account or have developed a first-name-basis relationship with your package delivery guy or gal because you have so many things shipped right to your door, you probably already know that the retail revolution will only become more digital. If you’re working on future-proofing your retail career, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to get caught up (and keep up) with the tech trends.
This doesn’t mean that brick-and-mortar stores will cease to exist in your career lifetime, or that we should all just apply for jobs at Amazon and be done with it. Rather, start paying attention to how people are shopping. What devices are they using? What are the conveniences of shopping via tech vs. shopping in person? How can the in-person shopping experience be made better or easier by using technology? Whether you’re a corporate employee, a customer service rep, or a retail associate, being familiar with technology (and its benefits) will make you better able to do your job, because you’ll be equipped to deal with whatever impact apps, online storefronts, or other tech advances have on the retail world.
2. Social Media Smarts
Social media has become the go-to place for retail brand ambassadors. It’s a way to advocate for your store, product, service, or brand, and to directly reach customers. No matter what your role in retail, being well-versed in social media can help you reach more people to build your brand, or—at the very least—collect vast amounts of information on your target customer base.
3. Knowledge of Logistics and Operations
The big push has been to deliver goods and services fast—as close to immediate as logistically possible. That trend is likely to keep continuing in the future, so the logistics end of retail is going to be a major growth area. Strong organizational skills, as well as a passion for getting things from Point A to Point B quickly, cost-effectively, and safely will create an incredibly valuable skill set to bring to your career.
And if you’ve got a brilliant plan for making drone deliveries work, well, your future in the retail world is probably very bright indeed.
4. A Focus on Data
The future is, unquestionably, grounded in data. We generate data about ourselves and our preferences when we shop, when we browse, when we interact with anything online. But all of that data not only has to go somewhere, it has to be analyzed and turned into ideas that can actually be turned into better customer service, or an improved bottom line for the store.
And “data” can seem like a daunting, faceless skill that might not have a direct impact on your own career, but it actually creates lots of different opportunities for people in the field. It increases the demand for Information Technology professionals in retail who can capture and present the data, as well as analysts who can turn it into goals and processes for a company, and also managers, associates, and customer service professionals who can take all of that upstream information and use it on direct sales and customer experience.
You also don’t need an advanced degree in IT or engineering to bump up your data analytics skills. You can use free online analytics tools (like Google Analytics) to start building a base of knowledge about how people interact with information, what kind of information you can get about people, and how that might affect business decisions. There are also free online courses you can take to start building your data analysis skills.
5. A Knack for Customer Service
Great customer service skills never go out of style, and they will continue to be crucial in future retail. This goes hand-in-hand with the social media savvy we talked about before, because so much of the customer/consumer experience is rooted in digital platforms: looking for product information, needing help troubleshooting, and giving feedback.
The trick for the future of customer service will be adapting those traditional customer service skills to a digital environment, one where you may never face or talk to the customer. There are also additional layers of accountability for the customer service rep in the future, as customers have more and more avenues to talk about their experience with a company. (I’m sure we’ve all cringed at some of the viral stories about customers who have been stonewalled, insulted, or worse by bad customer service, made instantly public via social media.) The future of customer service will be balancing the company’s bottom-line needs with the realities of working with customers.
6. Knowledge of Behavioral Finance
Finance and financial theory are skills and knowledge that have always been essential in retail, and always will be. However, “behavioral finance” is a relatively new concept. It combines economics with psychology to help guide and understand financial decision-making. Understanding why people make the financial decisions they do (like, say, purchasing one product and not another) is, like data analytics, a skill that will become very valuable in the retail world.
7. Design and Merchandising Talent
Consumers have come to expect a certain level of design sophistication from retailers, and that trend is not likely to reverse any time soon. Stores and companies are also increasingly focused on behind-the-scenes design and merchandising strategies, meant to steer the customer toward purchases without him or her even realizing it. Professionals with an understanding of how design engages customers, and how to maximize that, will bring a very useful skill set to a retail career.
And don’t forget a basic personal skill that will come in very handy in the world of future retail: adaptability. This is an important skill to have no matter which industry you’ve chosen to build your career—after all, very few companies are interested in someone who says, “this is how things are done now, and that’s just how it should be forever.” But flexibility is an especially crucial skill for retail. Look at how things have changed in the past 10 or 15 years for retail, as behemoth companies like Amazon and Walmart have shaped how and where we shop. And as technology upgrades and people’s needs change and evolve, there is no reason to think that the current status quo will hold for the future. An openness to change, to innovate, or to say “we can do this better,” is an outlook that will help you survive and thrive as a retail professional in any environment.
Retail, like all industries, will continue to evolve—and if you start working on skills now that will make you a smarter and more adaptable professional later, you’re setting yourself up for an even more successful career.