The sexiest job in retail

There’s a tug of war going on in retail between art and science, and science is starting to win.

The traditional intuitive skill of the merchant is being matched by the research-based deftness of the data jockey.

As one marker, Harvard Business Review headlined an article last October, ‘Data scientist: The sexiest job of the 21st century’. In another piece on, Jessica Leber notes, “the job description ‘data scientist’ didn’t even exist five years ago”.

To back up the new-found seductiveness of data, one of the more interesting reads of 2012 was Dimitri Maex’s book, ‘Sexy little numbers: How to grow your business using the data you already have’.

What is a data scientist? According the HBR essay, the position describes a “high ranking professional with the training and curiosity to make discoveries in the world of big data”.

The reason that this job needs to be done at all is the data deluge that is hitting companies everywhere, and the opportunity to put that information to productive use.

In talking recently with Jon Stine, lead for retail consulting for Cisco North America, the growth of the data scientist is a major trend. “Product, price, and even IT are now commoditised,” says Stine. “The next battlefield is in capturing, comparing and correlating data in new ways.”

Stine talks of pooling and using data from previous purchases, loyalty programs, social media feeds, and the context of the world around the customer (time, place, weather) to create ‘causal predictions’.

He puts forward a neat example. “Say you’re in London and it’s raining. Great data analysis should know that you don’t have a raincoat, love the Burberry brand, and that there’s a special offer in the store on Regent St. A deal automatically pops up on your smartphone, along with directions on how to get to the store.”

Video is also being turned into structured data, where feeds from a store can be used to analyse and intercept customers based on age, gender, race, and their likely needs and wants.

Sam Walton may turn in his grave, but Stine tells me that hiring sites show that Walmart is seeking 40 to 50 data science PhD’s right now, and no doubt has many already on staff. Amazon is also big on data scientists.

This is just the beginning too. Stine and Cisco talk about the Internet of Everything, where everyday items are linked into the internet, constantly talking and sharing data.

So the serious challenge for all retailers is to invest in the power of data. If data scientists are suddenly sexy, maybe it’s time to get a little hot and sweaty about the rivers of data in your business.

Jon Bird is chairman of specialist retail marketing agency IdeaWorks, and chairman of Octomedia, publisher of Inside Retail.
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