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Professionals increasingly seeing retail as a promising career path

Shoppers use virtual reality glasses at a Samsung store at a commercial center in Santiago, Chile, May 19, 2017.

Ivan Alvarado/REUTERS

Stephen Bebis is looking to hire a director of in-store experience. If the job title sounds like one that didn't exist 20 years ago, that's probably accurate. Mr. Bebis, a new partner at talent strategy firm The Bigwin Group after decades in retail as founder of both Quebec home-improvement retailer Reno Depot and sports chain Golf Town, says he's excited about the potential for innovation in retail careers.

"We're on the cusp of a retail renaissance. It's changing dramatically, and it's an opportunity to be part of an amazing transformation," he says. Technology and the increasingly connected, customer-centric world makes today's retail environment one where people can increasingly see themselves forging a long-term career path.

Unlike some fields, nearly everyone has had some interaction with retail, so the changing landscape is no secret. It's also easy to grasp that a director of in-store experience position would demand a mindset to think of retailing from every angle, from concept to space to lighting, smell and taste. Increasingly, stores are more than just a depot of shelves, but hubs for customers to connect with experts on their products.

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The January launch of a new 21,000-square foot Samsung Experience Store at Toronto's Eaton Centre is just one recent example of retailers trying to create this "immersive, hands-on, multi-sensory experience," as described by the company's website. Yes, customers can still test out the company's tablets and smartphones (and appliances, as the store centralizes all products), but now they can also play with virtual-reality headsets, receive on-site tech support and even attend events such as photography workshops or cooking demonstrations by celebrity chefs – all of which build consumer connection while providing inspiration on how to use the tech tools.

"There's been a seismic shift with online integration in the consumer's journey and a need to elevate and personalize consumer experience in order to deliver value for customer time in store," says Patricia Heath, Samsung's vice-president of retail excellence. "Retail careers look really different because of these changes."

Of course, technology and the ability to track online buying and browsing drives much of this change. After customer experience, big data and analytics have probably had the most impact on the industry, along with automation of supply chain and logistics processes, says Frances Gunn, associate professor in Ryerson's bachelor of commerce in retail management program. Both Mr. Bebis and Ms. Heath name analytics as a top hard skill they would look for from anyone pursuing a career in retail today.

Almost as important as technology itself is "omnichannel," retailer speak for the drive to maintain consistency regardless of whether the customer accesses a store online, by phone or in person. At Ryerson, omnichannel has become a curriculum fundamental of the retailing program.

Mr. Bebis points to the recent launch of the Amazon Go automated grocery store as an example of a retailer pushing to unify retail into one customer-service experience, something he says will only become more essential. "You can't have any barriers. You need the same look, feel and customer service. Retailers who are doing well in this space, it's because they're looking at it as all the same business, doing the same online as in the store," he says.

This need to see the big picture is also having an impact on the skills required of those who move up the retail career ladder. Hart Hillman, founder and CEO of The Bigwin Group, where recruitment focuses mostly on C-suite careers, says he and his colleagues look for leaders who are able to respond to change. "Adaptability is key, to look into the future and see things others are not seeing," says Mr. Hillman.

Ms. Gunn, who teaches leadership to her students at Ryerson, agrees. "From a leadership perspective, being able to mobilize a team, to move strategy in responsive way, you need to have leadership skills that are adept at being responsive," she says.

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The promise of strategic thinking and innovation has made retail even more attractive as a career. In a 2017 paper published in The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, Ms. Gunn and her colleagues presented research that showed a shift in perception of retail-management careers over the past decade, in which people have started to see retail as an intentional trajectory, with a younger cohort even viewing the path as a way to engage in community building.

"When you think of it, it makes sense that retail is integral to any community," says Ms. Gunn. "And they're seeing that side of the business as being very appealing because it builds lives."

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