The world of retail is a tale of resilience. Of pivoting during COVID-19, of adapting to online sales, of introducing new services and exploring new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. Throughout the pandemic, it has been a tale of embracing new mindsets and approaches and putting aside some of the common retail mantras while doubling down on others. But it is also a cautionary tale, with a looming technology talent shortage that will test even the most resilient retailers.

More on that shortly, but first let’s take a look at Australia’s post COVID-19 economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the beginning of April upgraded its 2021 forecast for Australia from 3.5% annual GDP growth to 4.5%. While much of that forecast hinges on vaccine rollouts, it does position Australia in a decent place by the end of 2021. However, the forecast for 2022 is again looking lean.

As a result, some retailers are using this time now to take stock of their organisation and find ways for innovative technology to help deliver the results they’ll need in the years ahead. After all, being resilient is not just about surviving, it is also about being prepared.

Incorporating tech at every touchpoint

The customer experience is everything when it comes to retail. Every interaction, every detail can help to provide more insight into the way each customer thinks and acts, which leads to more opportunities and deeper loyalty through personalised experiences and timely individual marketing approaches. Through technology, retailers can keep the experience consistent across online and offline shopping experiences, help customers in their search by either offering support at the right time, or smartly connecting them with their interests.

Augmenting retail employees’ abilities with AI is another area that can deliver real returns, by either helping them access the information they need at their fingertips or connecting them with intelligent supply chain data to accurately track stock movements. Good systems will also help identify loyal customers before they have to provide a loyalty card number and give employees the opportunity to shine and make more sales.

Optimising operations can help with many scenarios from managing stock automatically and ordering or replacing ahead of anticipated demand, to stocking smarter shelves at stores or ensuring stock comes from ethical sources and is being adequately tracked. The pandemic saw international supply chains almost dry up overnight, leading to some deliveries taking weeks or months, if they were fulfilled at all. Intelligent supply chain operations can help to adapt and sometimes predict these sorts of bottlenecks and plan adequately ahead of time to maintain ongoing supply.

Tapping into talent

One of the key barriers to adopting more innovative technologies across retail businesses is the access to talent to help bring the technology to life for the business. Good technology talent aligns technology solutions with business objectives and connects to the effective parts of the business. That’s where the growing problem of the talent shortage is about to make things more difficult.

According to the World Economic Forum, eight of the top 10 job roles that are increasing in demand are in the technology space. Prior to the travel restrictions, skilled immigration has helped to meet some of this growing need for Australian businesses, but even that has slowed as a result of the pandemic.

What does this mean for retail? At a time when it is most critical to innovate, retailers are likely to face a core technology talent shortage and finding the right people will be incredibly tough. So, while you may have your technology plans already in mind, you also need to develop talent strategies that sit alongside these plans. This would require tapping into the right knowledge and skills, both internally and externally, to ensure your technology plans are fit for purpose and create long-term business value for the organisation.

Increasingly we are seeing organisations adopt a myriad of approaches to overcome talent shortage. In addition to investing in upskilling their best and brightest employees, companies engage third-party experts for their industry expertise and delivery capability to enable knowledge transfer and fast track innovation. Others are forming partnerships with training institutions and universities to develop short courses and curriculums that are geared towards the needs of their industry.

Whichever way you look to solve your technology talent challenge, one thing is clear: there’s no going back to the pre-pandemic ways of doing business. Emerging technologies will be a core component of the customer experience, the employee experience and business operations for all successful retailers from here on out.

Lourens Swanepoel is data and AI lead at Avanade Australia.