Meet Your Match: Breaking Into the Retail Industry in a Tech Role

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Do you love retail therapy? How about the idea of a career that puts you on the leading edge of new product launches—ones that improve lives daily? If you dream of working in retail or ecommerce, a tech role might be the best way to break into the business, as retail is a top 6 employer of tech talent.

The blanket term “retail” encompasses any business that directly sells consumer goods. Retailers can include e-commerce sales that take place across the web, as well as brick-and-mortar stores like supermarkets, department stores, or specialty mom-and-pop shops. Household goods, appliances, fashion apparel, beauty products, toys, entertainment like video games—these subsets are all part of a $30.3 trillion global industry.

What Makes Retail a “Tech” Industry?

Digitization has left a permanent mark on the retail industry. We tap technology to pay for purchases, redeem coupons and loyalty rewards, see how a new couch will look in the living room, and find out where to buy must-have household goods as the need arises. In a few short decades, we’ve shifted from brick-and-mortar shopping to ordering goods from the palm of our hands—sometimes delivered to our doorsteps in less than an hour.

Increased demand for convenience and personalization will continue to reshape how consumers engage with retailers, leading to new marketing and growth opportunities for industry innovators—not to mention workers with relevant tech skills. 

Here are some of the key tech trends defining the future of shopping: 

Increasing comfort with online shopping

Industry analysts sometimes refer to the 2010s as “the e-commerce decade.” During that time, the percentage of e-commerce as a percentage of total retail sales rose from 4.5% in 2010 to 14.8% in 2020—this is all up from 1% in 2000. Considering the sustainable ROI of email marketing, the rise of subscription services, and the sector’s double-digit dollar growth since 2011, it’s safe to say the digital experience will continue to gain momentum as e-commerce inches closer to accounting for 25% of total retail sales. 

The mobile connectivity boom

The proliferation of web-connected mobile phones is partly responsible for the explosive growth of online shopping, with nearly half of all e-commerce sales in 2020 stemming from mobile shoppers—up from 1.3% in 2010. Mobile devices have also transformed how and why we shop in-store. Where passersby may have wandered into a store in 2010, 88% of shoppers have already pre-shopped on their smartphones before stepping foot in a store today. 

Rising social media use

As the number of social media users tripled, the nature of business evolved—with companies arising to facilitate customer service, collect data, deploy marketing campaigns, and direct sell. Key elements of retail’s digital makeover, such as personalization, convenience, and cross-channel experience, hinge on social media—and unlock the key to profitability. In fact, McKinsey found retailers that invested in omni-channel architecture reaped 3.3x the total sales revenue of peers deemed “digital transformation laggards.”

Constant digital innovation

Through the 2020s, digitization will continue to streamline the shopper experience, from electronic inventory tracking through cashierless checkout. As customers grow increasingly comfortable ordering what they need from mobile apps, paying with digital wallets, and asking voice assistants for product recommendations, the demand for tech talent is just starting to take wing.

That’s because behind nascent trends like augmented reality experiences, livestream in-store events, and Artificial Intelligence-led customer support are teams of software developers, data analysts, data scientists, and UX designers ushering in tomorrow’s tech-powered conveniences and delightful shopping experiences. 

Why are Tech Roles Important in Retail? 

A decade or two ago, tech and retail may not have been the most obvious pairing. But today there are more software engineers working in the retail industry than Silicon Valley. Driven by Amazon’s rush of e-commerce success, traditional retailers are upending their business models and exploring every avenue they can to break out of the box. Some leading retailers have partnered with NASA or virtual reality company Oculus Rift to reimagine the future of shopping. 

Not only has retail become a “cool” industry for tech workers to hop into—it’s also a relatively robust industry that is well-equipped to absorb shock from the economy. We’ve seen this through 2022 into 2023, as consumer spending holds strong, continuing steady growth dating back over a decade, despite the tumult of pandemics, recessions, supply chain disruptions, wars, natural disasters, and inflation.

As retailers and e-commerce tech companies grapple with all these changes and challenges (the pace of online retail sales reflects four years’ worth of growth in just 12 months),  they’re looking for tech talent to keep up with surging demand.

In fact, in the years leading up to the pandemic’s acceleration of digital transformation, technology roles had grown from 7 to 9% of all jobs in retail, with big names like The Home Depot, Nordstrom, and Kroger looking to hire over 900,000 data analysts, data scientists, software engineers, and UX professionals. 

Now, fast forward. This year, Walmart added 5,000 tech workers to its 20,000+ software engineers, data scientists, and technical product managers. Retailers like Target and Walgreens have 409,000 and 277,000 software engineers on staff, respectively, to support their mobile apps and websites, according to Career Karma.  

Beyond the numbers, candidates gravitate toward retail and e-commerce tech jobs for personal reasons. They like to be at the forefront of transformations in commerce as they unfold—to know what’s coming before it hits the marketplace and play a role in disrupting the status quo. 

Retail is an industry where it’s possible to join the mission of a unique, values-driven company or explore your interests and passions through work. There are plenty of opportunities to solve tricky challenges and make a noticeable impact. With e-commerce jobs, in particular, improvements made by developers and designers can be witnessed almost immediately in conversion rates. 

And just as retailers go to great lengths to wow shoppers with aesthetically pleasing, full-sensory in-store experiences, their workplaces are often similarly engaging—with lunch-and-learn sessions, remote e-commerce jobs, and perks like tickets to fashion shows or the ability to try new products before they debut.

Imagine the Possibilities of a Tech Role in Retail

Certain roles that are highly desirable across industries, and retail is no exception. Here are the top roles needed to keep the industry innovating into the future:

  • Data scientists: Data science powers recommendation engines, augmented reality personalization, price optimization models, and many more retail innovations. According to the BLS outlook, 40,500 new jobs will be added as the role increases 36% by 2031. While the U.S. is the biggest market for data scientists, it’s far from the only. A quick job search on Indeed reveals over 1,000 open roles in the U.K., 718 in France, 900 in Germany, and 500 in India, indicating strong demand across the board. 
  • UX designers: The value of a UX designer will only increase as consumer demands for convenience, personalization, omnichannel marketing, and innovative digital experience hold steady. There are over 1 million UX designers worldwide, though the nature of their work continues to expand and evolve. CNN Money estimates the UX designer role will grow 13% from 2017-2027.  

Let’s take a look at some of the many exciting retail tech projects you could be a part of…

Big box e-commerce

Data analysts are always needed to optimize pricing, assortment, and supply chain movement, while data scientists work on projects that automate work and streamline operational efficiency. New challenges and interesting projects keep the days interesting as you leverage AI and machine learning, use pattern recognition to develop predictive models, and translate results into goals and actions. 

E-commerce jobs in tech include software engineer and UX designer roles where you design, build, test, or improve a retailer or retail brand’s website, mobile app, and social shopping channels. As big box retailers like Walmart close brick-and-mortar stores and shift more of their business online, software engineer becomes the third-most-coveted role in retail, after salesperson and logistics specialist. 

Brick-and-mortar retail 

Software engineers deliver the retail and e-commerce tech stack that bridges knowledge across online and offline databases, beacon networks that text shoppers promotions in real-time, and automated surveillance systems that alert managers of suspicious activity to prevent theft. Behind the scenes of brick-and-mortar, you might code a warehouse management system or supply chain optimization platform that makes a business more efficient. 

Data analysts look at patterns in overall store traffic, where shoppers spend the most time looking, and which inventory is most or least popular to inform staffing, marketing, and stocking decisions. Meanwhile, a data scientist’s role in brick-and-mortar is just beginning to unfold as retailers consider implementing artificial intelligence into frictionless checkouts, smart mirrors, and real-time shelf inventory tracking systems.

Sustainable retail

Companies going all-in on sustainability efforts rely on tech talent like data analysts and data scientists to find ways to identify wasteful processes, develop databases that track raw material sourcing, and design machines that produce goods more sustainably. 

Beauty retail

Digital customer experiences are a new frontier in many sub-specialties of retail, especially for the beauty industry. For instance, software engineers and data scientists might work on an augmented reality project for a skincare brand that uses data analysis and artificial intelligence to recommend the perfect products for individual customers. Or a UX designer might build a user-friendly virtual beauty consultation experience.  

Fashion retail 

Fashion tech jobs now include UX designers for luxury brand portals, where they create virtual closets for avatars to try and buy—a role that was only a dream five short years ago. 

Analytical types wondering how to break into the fashion industry may find a surprisingly short road by pursuing a data analyst career—where they can help fashion industry leaders harness predictive analytics to decide on product design and sizing, raw materials sourcing, customer distribution models, and pricing. 

For data science experts, tech in fashion reduces returns by predicting how a particular product will fit a particular customer, indicates styles to avoid pursuing in next season’s collection based on sales, and identifies ideal influencer partnerships for social media marketing campaigns. Through artificial intelligence software, fashion leaders can recognize fashion trends before they hit the catwalk or become mainstream headlines. 

Retailtainment

Tech or retail may not immediately come to mind if you’re considering how to break into the entertainment industry—and yet, “retailtainment” has become a buzzword to describe different ways of engaging consumers and enticing them to purchase by offering a unique sensory experience. Digital integration is largely viewed as a way to “revive retailers’ in-store appeal.”

For instance, as a data scientist, you might extract data from social media that turns into the next form of entertainment—like the time IKEA invited 100 Facebook competition winners to a sleepover where they could work with a sleep specialist to find the right mattresses, pillows, and sheets. Or you might be the UX designer who creates a golf simulator bay where friends gather to take a few swings over food and drink on a Friday night. As a software engineer, you might work on the virtual reality programming that transports players to another country to see the company’s social welfare work and charitable donations in action. 

Household goods retail

Household appliances have gotten a lot “smarter” over the last decade, driving the demand for software engineers to design, analyze, and run everything from refrigerators that fire off grocery lists for us to voice-activated microwaves, to mobile-controlled lighting and HVAC. 

With so many new avenues for data collection, talented data analysts can help business leaders make sense of what’s happening today so they can be better prepared for tomorrow. And behind every package of cookies or bar of soap exists a world of data scientists and UX designers striving to make each iteration of the product and each launch better than the last. 

Use GA as your tech skill stepping stone into retail/e-commerce

As a coder, celebrity fashion entrepreneur and former tennis star Serena Williams has said understanding “the tech side” has been just as important as the fashion side of her online business. And, as we’ve learned from Vera Wang—who didn’t get started in the fashion industry until age 40—it’s never too old to learn software engineer skills to further your business career.

Whether you have previous tech experience or not, General Assembly bootcamps can provide you with the most current in-demand e-commerce tech skills you need to make a career change into an industry you adore. While it can be daunting to take that leap of faith, remember that you’re not alone—over 60,000 people have done it before you.

Wondering if a retail or e-commerce career might be love at first byte? Take our Tech Industries “Meet Your Match” Quiz to find out!