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Retail Investment: Humans now the secondary consideration to Tech 

New technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) are now considered the key investment priorities within the retail sector, outstripping human factors such as skills and workforce expansion, research from Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance has found.

As the UK’s largest retail point of sale finance provider, Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance commissioned the study to understand and tackle the challenges that influence the customer purchasing journey, from niche e-commerce outlets to high street brands.

In a study of more than 500 senior decision-makers from across the non-food retail spectrum, more than a third (36%) of respondents cited technology as a key area of investment focus. That’s almost twice the number who cited expanding the workforce (19%), with hiring for particular skills (22%) also low on priorities.

Today’s findings comes with the launch of the wide-ranging and in-depth Blueprint for Retail Investment whitepaper looking at the investment pressures retailers are facing – from blockchain to new platforms – and includes insight and opinion from senior figures within some of the largest retailers currently operating in the UK.

Recruitment should remain front-of-mind amongst retailers, with high staff turnover and training costs causing persistent headaches for executives. Larger firms (£16m-£25m turnover) have demonstrated particular concerns, with 40% stating recruitment and training is their biggest business challenge in the next 18 months.

Vincent Reboul, managing director, Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance, said: “There is no doubting that the future of retail is going to be driven by technology. Retail experiences are being transformed by immersive and inventive innovations, while processes such blockchain and AI have the power to change the supply chain and logistics forever. However, the industry is only as good as the people within it, so it remains crucial for retailers to get the balance right between technology and human investment.”

Hitachi Capital Consumer Finance’s research has shown that many retail sectors are now focussing primarily on technology as they come under pressure to innovate amid business rate rises, depressed consumer spending and broader concerns around the health of the UK’s high streets.

In qualitative research conducted for the whitepaper one respondent, a Director at a top 10 ecommerce retailer, said: “Technology is changing the way people are buying products, especially in the millennial category, but you need to have a strategy that caters for both traditional buyers and millennials.”

They added: “Broadly, traditional organisations do not have the right tech people on board, and we’ve seen those retailers going through some difficult cycles to implement or pick the right technology for their business.”

Electricals (15%), healthcare (16%) and ecommerce (15%) retailers all rate recruitment well down their list of priorities, with the changing demands of consumers causing the biggest challenge (48%, 35% and 39% respectively).

Interestingly, while the largest retailers (£25m+ turnover) overwhelmingly (64%) picked out new technology as a focus, just 10% of businesses in the next largest bracket of £16m-£25m turnover considered it a priority, opting instead to focus on increasing their retail footprint (31%).

Mr. Reboul added: “Our Blueprint for Retail Investment whitepaper has uncovered just how complicated the landscape is for retailers. Ever changing consumer demands are forcing the industry to look hard at how they can attract and keep new customers, while still managing their overheads. The research shows that, not only are there hugely differing opinions of the appropriate action to take across differing retail sectors, but there are also perhaps some areas where tech versus human investment is out of kilter.”

The Blueprint for Retail Investment whitepaper is a significant analysis of the retail industry, including quantitative and qualitative research from key decision makers across the sector. The paper sheds light on the 2018 landscape, new approaches to bricks and mortar, online and omnichannel retail, the impact of new technologies within tooling and the workforce, the movement goods and the global outlook for the retail sector.