Multichannel skills are vital for retailers today. Claire Burke considers whether they should develop their skills in-house, or rely on external consultants.


In theory, providing multichannel services shouldn’t be too hard. Whatever the channel, customers want a user-friendly experience, convenient delivery, an easy return process and straightforward, fast payment.

But that is easier said than done.

Multichannel retailing is still so new that finding staff with the skills to enable companies to provide such services is difficult.

Majestic Wine ecommerce director Richard Weaver says: “This is an area that has gone from zero to hero in a relatively short space of time, in about 15 years. In order to build up a core of people that’s not very long. The world we live in is so fast moving it’s difficult to have enough people keeping up with that to go around.”

Mind the gap

House of Fraser ecommerce director Andy Harding agrees the pace of change has made things difficult. He says there’s a gap between what retailers want and what is on offer. “There is a disconnect,” he points out. “Businesses are focused on multichannel and want people with good, relevant experience. People with these skills are in real demand. But many applicants are not up to it.”

But, he adds, it’s often a question of knowing where to go for the best candidates: “We know where to look, good people network and operate in certain online environments.”

Harding says the main skills lacking are often business related, rather than technical. One of the key skills often missing, for instance, is an understanding of store operations. Another requirement, he says, is the ability to effectively and clearly educate other members of staff about new processes and initiatives.

“You need good communication skills to educate quite a large number of people,” he says. For those who have been in retail all their lives you are bringing something to them that is often brand new. That requires a certain type of patience and skill.”

Harding adds project management is another important skill that is often missing in candidates and Ian Geddes, UK head of retail at Deloitte, agrees it is crucial. “You are working with lots of different parties and need to be able to pull all these different people together on time when they are not all in the same location.” He says business strategy skills, creativity, and knowing how to deliver technology in a more agile way are also necessary.

Majestic Wine has an ecommerce team of nine and Weaver says staff pick up multichannel skills on the job: “I’m very happy with my team. We tend to recruit internally for our ecommerce team. We’re a major graduate recruiter, we’ve got a big pool of talent to turn to internally. They can learn the specific skills they need on the job.”

Majestic Wine tends to recruit internally for its ecommerce team

Majestic Wine tends to recruit internally for its ecommerce team

Staff are encouraged to stay abreast of multichannel developments through attending trade shows and seminars. And the skills are spread throughout the company because new recruits spend time with the ecommerce team, learning by example.

Weaver prefers to cultivate the skills he needs in-house. “If you are over reliant on consultancy there is an exposure in terms of cost. If you’re a business where multichannel is at the heart of what you do it’s important to develop those skills in-house.”

But he says external consultants can play an important role. “The job of consultants is to do things for you that they’ve done a lot more times than you’ve done. If it’s something that is done every day, develop the skills in-house. However, if it’s done from time to time it’s inefficient to have someone on the payroll.”

House of Fraser has broken new ground in multichannel retail over the past 18 months after launching smaller-format click-and-collect stores in Aberdeen and Liverpool last year. Instead of stocking merchandise, there are a series of iPads, computers and kiosks customers use to order products that are delivered the next day.

Harding says there are benefits of developing in-house multichannel expertise, but that House of Fraser brings in consultants at the start of projects to help collate requirements and map out the project journey.

He said: “I’m a massive fan of in-house skills. However, there’s certain instances where bringing in consultants adds a lot of value.”

Kate Peters, UK general manager at vintage clothing retailer Beyond Retro, says she prefers to do things in-house: “You want to give your staff new skills. Any time we can send people out to workshops and seminars we do.

“In an ideal world we would do everything ourselves. You lose control when you take something outside. If you want to make a change it’s a longer process, which can be frustrating.”

While in-house skills are generally preferred, retailers frequently welcome external help to understand new IT. Emerging technologies are creating a higher dependence on expertise, says Geddes, which is where consultants can help.

While multichannel is relatively new in the retail industry, it’s been around longer in some other sectors and that can be helpful. Geddes says: “What’s new to retailers isn’t necessarily new to other industries. Consultancies can help provide specialist skills as they have used these skills previously,” he says.

Consultancies also provide expertise in areas that retailers might not want to invest in, such as tax implications and securities. They help retailers design programmes and system integrations and help develop new capabilities.

With technology developing so rapidly, external help becomes more pressing – retailers are likely to see more development around smartphones and tablets this year, for instance. A series of consumer studies by KPMG found that in 2007 only 1% of people preferred to use mobile phones for online shopping, but by 2011, this had risen to 7%.

Tablet and smartphone apps are now a key priority for retailers, and according to Iain Blair, director of recruitment agency ReThink Recruitment, this is creating a skills gap in the retail industry as retailers rush to employ staff with the experience they need. The limited supply of qualified contractors is also pushing up pay.

He adds while much of this work used to be outsourced to third-party agencies, retailers now feel far more comfortable bringing it in-house and are recruiting to form their own teams.

“It’s about building up a resource pool, then you’ve got people who have the experience and can do projects again,” he says. “Staff will want to move across to work in multichannel because they get to work on exciting projects.”

And it’s not just multichannel staff who are developing their skills. Store assistants, for example, may need to know how to research products or complete transactions on an iPad or to learn how to do online returns in-store.

The best option will be to find the right balance. Successful multichannel retailers often use a combination of training staff, taking on new recruits and using consultants.

As ecommerce becomes ever more central, and online and store operations become increasingly integrated, such skills will continue to be key to the success of the business – it’s wise to invest in their development now.

The essential skills in a multichannel world

Skilled multichannel staff are in high demand but short supply. The field has developed so quickly that there are few people with the right combination of knowledge and experience.

The main skills lacking are business related rather than technical, and many multichannel candidates often don’t have awareness of store operations, according to House of Fraser ecommerce director Andy Harding.

Another requirement is the ability to clearly communicate with other staff across the business. Multichannel staff will often need to teach others about new processes and initiatives. It requires patience and skill to educate others, says Harding.

Project management skills are also crucial, because multichannel projects often cross departments – staff need to pull things together on time.

A certain amount of creativity is necessary because so much in multichannel is fairly new. Good ideas for new services and new ways of achieving goals are needed.

Staff with strong multichannel skills will also have an ability to link what they’re doing with the wider business strategy. Learning quickly is crucial too – new skills and new technologies crop up all the time, and learning on the job becomes second nature to ecommerce and multichannel teams.