Technology Roles Are Fastest-Growing Jobs in Retail

Demise of brick-and-mortar retail sales jobs disputed

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer July 13, 2018

​The composition of the retail workforce is changing in line with the transformative shift from brick-and-mortar stores to e-commerce operations, according to LinkedIn data.  

A recent global analysis of LinkedIn user profiles found that "software developer" is the fastest-growing job in retail, while the traditional sales-associate role appears to be in decline. The number of people identifying as retail salespeople on their LinkedIn profiles has fallen 41 percent from 2013 to 2017.

Retail technology jobs have grown from 7 percent to 9 percent in that time, with software developer moving to third-most-held retail occupation in 2017. Salesperson is still the top job in retail, dropping from 33 percent in 2013 to 29 percent in 2017, followed by operations (13 percent in 2017).

One key reason for the increase in tech roles is that online shopping is increasing in popularity, said Sarah O'Brien, global insights director for LinkedIn's Talent Solutions business. "Mary Meeker's 2018 Internet trends report showed that e-commerce now represents 13 percent of all retail, up from 9 percent in 2013," she said. "Walmart is a good example—the retailer recently announced it was converting several Sam's Club stores into distribution centers for online orders. This means that the in-store sales roles and responsibilities are shifting, that more tech employees are needed to develop and maintain e-commerce sites and fulfillment, and that more developers are needed to manage the increasingly digitally enabled supply-chain logistics."

The findings indicate that the evolution of retail is causing the industry to compete for a new kind of talent. For example, The Home Depot is planning to hire more than 1,000 new technology employees this year, in software engineering, user-experience design, network engineering and product management, the company said.

"There's been a huge amount of investment in retailers' digital assets, and anecdotally, we know they are out there hiring for tech roles," said Mark Mathews, vice president of research at the National Retail Federation (NRF), the leading retail trade association, based in Washington, D.C. But it's hard to accurately capture the number of technology workers in retail because it's not reflected in government data, he said.

The government's occupational statistical data define jobs by the production process that occurs in the building the people are working in, Mathews explained. "So if you work as a programmer in the corporate headquarters at Walmart, you're not counted as a retail employee. If you work in a Walmart warehouse, you're not counted as a retail employee."

But data from labor market analytics company Burning Glass Technologies show that there were 4,800 job postings for software developers in the retail industry in the last three months, he said.

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Disagreement over the 'Retail Apocalypse'

While industry watchers agree that shoppers' increasing preference for buying items online has led to an increased share of technology roles across retail, there is no consensus on the soundness of the so-called "retail apocalypse"—the reported demise of U.S. brick-and-mortar retail stores and the sales jobs that go with them. Critics of the narrative say that media coverage suggesting a demise is exaggerated and that the sector is simply evolving.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that when broadly defined, the number of retail trade workers has generally been increasing since 2010; however, when narrowly limited to retail salespeople—defined as workers, excluding cashiers, who sell merchandise to consumers—the count fell from 4.6 million in May 2015 to 4.4 million in May 2017.

But Mathews noted that BLS and census data show that there has been a 5 percent increase in retail workers over the last five years and a 14 percent increase in the number of store associates per store over the last decade. And BLS projects employment of retail sales workers to grow 2 percent by 2026.

It's difficult to find agreement on the number of store closings as well. Coresight Research, a retail think tank that tracks closing and opening announcements, counted over 7,000 stores closed in 2017, setting a record. Its 2018 estimate of 8,000-10,000 store closures squares with predictions made by commercial real estate services firm CoStar, which shows nearly 11,000 stores—owned by traditional retailers like Sears, Walgreens and Gap—anticipated to close.

But Mathews argued that closings focused on public companies presents a skewed perspective of the industry. "It's the biggest companies that are hardest to turn around when you go through the changes and disruption the retail industry is going through," he said. "When you see a retailer like Toys R Us go under, it resonates, because we all associate with these brands. But 98 percent of retail businesses are small businesses with fewer than 100 workers. Those aren't typically reflected in the numbers."

Findings from global research and advisory firm IHL Group based in Franklin, Tenn., showed that 16 brands are responsible for 48 percent of the total number of store closings, and while department stores and fashion specialty chains are experiencing high-profile attrition, the picture changes when supermarkets, drugstores, convenience stores and discount retailers are included.

Retailers opened 4,080 more stores in 2017 than they closed and plan to open over 5,500 more in 2018, according to IHL, although that count includes retail fast-food and restaurant chains like Burger King, Chipotle and Starbucks.

Excluding restaurants, IHL shows retailers opened a net gain of 1,326 stores, with the three fastest-growing retail segments being discount stores (1,905 stores), convenience stores (1,700 stores) and grocery stores (674 stores).

"The so-called retail apocalypse makes for a great headline, but it's simply not true," said Greg Buzek, president of IHL Group. "Without question, retail is undergoing some fundamental changes. The days of 'build it and they will come' are over. However, retailers that are focusing on the customer experience, investing in better training of associates and integrating IT systems across channels, will continue to succeed."



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