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Majority of Canadian Retailers Self-Identify as ‘Intelligent’ as Digital Takes Hold [Study/Interview]

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Canadian retailers are increasingly hiring for digital-savvy jobs such as UX/UI designers, data analysts, software developers, and digital marketers as intelligent retail continues to expand post-COVID.

A new report, Striving to Be Smarter: The Evolution of Intelligent Retail in Canada, by The Information and Communications Technology Council, found that intelligent retail is a firmly entrenched concept in the sector, with over two-thirds (68 per cent) of Canadian retailers in a survey self-identifying as intelligent retailers.

The report was researched and written by Chris Herron (Research Analyst) and Mansharn Toor (Research and Policy Analyst), with support from Rob Davidson (Director, Data Science) and the ICTC Digital Think Tank team.

“The retail sector was one of the most challenged during the global pandemic. The initial shock of lockdowns impacted employment levels and outputs, but the sector quickly rebounded and performed relatively well when compared to the overall economy during 2020 and 2021,” said the report.

STRIVING TO BE SMARTER: THE EVOLUTION OF INTELLIGENT RETAIL IN CANADA

“Its stability is in large part due to the greater propensity of Canadians to shop online and utilize e-commerce technology; the industry witnessed many shifts as a result of the global pandemic and early investments in intelligent retail, including disruptions to supply chains. At the same time, key changes in consumer behaviour and expectations, coupled with labour shortages, are critical considerations for companies shaping new engagement strategies. 

Mansharn Toor

“Increasingly, retail companies must build their digital strategies by prioritizing technologies that provide solutions to an identified business problem and strengthen consumer relations in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. These strategies must include a concerted focus on talent, in terms of attracting, retaining, and transitioning workers. While the growth in automation and intelligent retail technologies have already created new and plentiful employment opportunities, for several digitally skilled roles such as UX/UI designers and software developers, more traditional retail occupations such as cashiers, warehouse personnel, or delivery people will require support to obtain the skills needed to remain competitive in the marketplace.”

Toor said the research found that many retailers were not ready in the process of adopting technology prior to COVID-19.

“But during and as they moved through COVID-19 and the pandemic, they increasingly found digital marketing, branded ambassadors and smart delivery, supply chain and fulfillment technologies, as increasingly important just due to some of the impacts of COVID-19 but also just in the impact of supply chains during the time,” she said.

Image: ICTC

Toor said the report found a high demand for software engineers, UX/UI designers as well as web developers.

“We believe that’s a direct response to the digitization of retail and the need to have a more digital presence not only to reach customers during the pandemic but also to sustain that customer base after the fact,” added Toor.

“While there is the importance of having a digital presence for retailers, there still is a demand for customers to walk into stores and actually be able to engage with the brand and the product themselves. And what we’ve noticed is that technology is a really big part of the in-store experience and what we call the physical/digital aspect of it. And so having the talent, even the frontline workers, the customer-facing workers, having the background in utilizing certain technologies that improve connections with consumers whether that’s being able to use an iPad and walk them around the store to give content about the products available or even just looking at the availability in store, with smart logistic and fulfillment tools.”

Chris Herron

Herron said there’s a massive diversity in the range of applications of technology across the retail sector. 

“The dynamic of how the workforce’s needs are changing is definitely underway,” he said.

“Another thing that this report found is that in the last few years there’s been a proliferation of software as a service application that have been essentially making a lot of these intelligent retail tools available to very small organizations for whom they would have been previously unavailable. 

“It used to be if you wanted to do a very unsophisticated, intelligent supply chain application, you really had to build it within your organization or you had to order something that was very expensive from a vendor. But nowadays you have many options as a small business with sometimes even just one or two employees for how to run a supply chain on your own, run an intelligent retail business on your own. Even things like point of sale.” 

Digital Flyer Signage at The Bay on Queen Street (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

Although the retail sector was experiencing a noticeable shift toward digitalization before the pandemic, COVID-19 galvanized Canadian retailers into adopting more digital tools, said the report.

“The movement of retailers adapting to a digital mindset is largely due to the mobile-driven changes in consumers’ attitudes and behaviours, and retailers having to build new capabilities to avoid losing market share. This adoption of technological advances for the retail sector can be traced back to the early 2010s; however, it was not completed in unison by the whole sector,” it said.

“In 2020, retailers adopted digital technologies at unprecedented rates under the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Retail Council of Canada, for example, notes that during the pandemic, more retailers were applying various technologies, including augmented reality, virtual reality, and smart logistics. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce reports that 30 per cent of Canadian retailers introduced virtual business connections, work from home, and e-commerce into their business process because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“However, retailers in Canada have not simply adopted technologies to serve short term needs. Many are making technology an integral part of their organizational strategy. This digital evolution and retailers’ focus on advancing their digital footprint to meet customers’ evolving needs is at the forefront of dialogue between retail executives in the US as well. For example, in recent research examining the practices of more than 200 retail IT executives, more than half note prioritizing continual upgrades to their digital customer experience, expanding the use of analytics-backed decision making, and increasing overall investments in AI.  

SELF CHECKOUTS, SHOPPERS DRUG MART

“The traditional relationship between retailers and technology is focused on enhancing the customer experience, but it has since evolved to offer options that battle inflationary measures. With ongoing supply-chain disruptions retailers will increasingly adopt deflationary technologies. These deflationary technologies will vary, but the emerging trends of smart shelves, cashier-less shopping, and increased integration of omnichannel marketing technologies will become increasingly present.”

Additionally, the ongoing advancements in technology within the retail sector means that retailers must develop strategies to safeguard customer data and privacy, added the report.

“For many retailers, COVID-19 was a decisive event that pushed them to invest even further in digital infrastructure and strategies to retain and attract customers and market share. Digitalization and intelligent retail must remain top priorities for organizations in the volatile new climate; according to a recent study by Deloitte, at least two-thirds of Canadian retail executives plan to invest significantly in omnichannel, modernize supply chains, and enhance data privacy and security,” said the report. 

“Although more than half of Canadian organizations are making major investments in expanding their digital capabilities, Canadian businesses must accelerate digital adoption to compete with key players in other jurisdictions like the US and China. However, the process of digitization in Canadian retail is not a one-size-fits-all model; according to survey respondents and interviewees in this study, the sector can be seen as overly traditional, with the ecosystem comprising a relatively limited group of competitors. Advancing this trajectory requires a concerted effort on further digitalization and a talent pipeline to support this change. According to employers, talent pipelines must be bolstered to produce a higher volume of digitally skilled workers needed to turn Canadian retail organizations into world leaders.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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