June 2, 2005, 12:00 AM

Narrow Focus

Retailers set their sights on experienced online marketing professionals

Online retailers who thought that all they needed was a burst of sales and their troubles would be over are finding they need to be careful what they wish for. Most are experiencing that burst of sales, but now they’re facing a new challenge-finding the right employees to take e-retailing to the next level. “You can’t make great wine without great grapes,” observes Jim Flanagan, senior vice president of human resources at GSI Commerce Inc., which operates e-commerce sites and provides outsource services for retailers.

Flanagan’s analogy is true, of course. It’s also true that with the online retailing market maturing, more companies are looking for the perfect grapes. “Among my customers that have catalog, bricks and mortar, and online under one corporation, I hear pretty consistently that either they are growing the online portion amazingly or that they want it to grow,” says Karyn Rogers, retail practice leader at answerQUEST, a division of Management Recruiters International. “But they don’t know how to get to it yet because they don’t have the talent in house. That’s why they’re looking for people.”

A glut of applicants

IT positions are still important and always will be. But according to e-retailers and job recruiters, the biggest challenge lies in finding marketing professionals who understand online retailing as well as the particular niche a company serves. E-retailers are finding that this is no easy task.

There are plenty of people willing to do the job. Consolidation, particularly among department stores, has created a glut of job applicants. But few of those candidates bring to the table the specialized skills e-retailers are clamoring for. The upside, however, is that when retailers do find the right people, employees are more interested in stability than hopping around in search of the big payout.

Online retail experience is becoming the critical job requirement. A few years ago, a talented marketing executive with traditional retail experience, or even a bright webmaster willing to learn marketing strategies, would have sufficed for taking on interactive marketing tasks. But retailers are increasingly looking for marketing professionals who are skilled in the ways of online retailing.

No more cobbling

“Companies who got into e-commerce as a second channel, a small piece of their business, cobbled together solutions,” Flanagan says. “More and more they’re finding out that’s not working. That was okay to get them started, but it doesn’t allow them to have a multichannel strategy.”

That’s the situation with Norm Thompson, the online and catalog apparel retailer. When the company put together its Internet marketing team, it filled positions with people who were the corporate equivalent of baseball utility players-responsible for merchandising and sales conversion, as well as online search and affiliate programs-simply because there was no such thing as an online marketing specialist.

But it’s different today and Norm Thompson is looking for prospective employees with more specialized skills. “As the web business grows, we’re seeing more people who have accumulated experience in search programs, affiliate programs, e-mail segmentation, site conversion and analytics,” says Debbie Hess, Norm Thompson director of Internet marketing. “Today, there are experienced people in the market in more narrow areas of focus.”

Retailers with multi-channel operations are especially sensitive to this trend as their web divisions become increasingly important to the bottom line. Once considered the redheaded stepchild among some traditional retailers, e-commerce divisions are now regarded as honored members of the corporate family.

Every quarter brings in record e-retail sales. And that, according to Rogers of answerQUEST, has encouraged multi-channel retailers to concentrate on making their online divisions as strong as their traditional channels.

Rogers, who recruits talent for such clients as Bed, Bath and Beyond Inc., QVC Inc., and Lane Bryant, notes that retailers are looking for people experienced in retail with a strong background in online retailing. “They’re looking for the online experience only, because they have the other channels covered well,” Rogers says. “They want someone who can really focus and make a difference on the online side.” On top of that, she adds, an online women’s apparel store isn’t likely to be interested in someone whose experience has been in consumer electronics or auto parts.

But a good interactive marketing executive is hard to find. Just ask Brian Bilello, director of strategic and business processes for the New England Patriots. This spring, Bilello was looking for a manager for the Patriots’ online store–ideally someone with online marketing skills and experience in selling apparel or sports equipment.

“We’re getting a little bit of either/or but not a lot of both,” Bilello says. “There are certainly a lot of people with bricks-and-mortar retail experience-quite good resumes if we were looking for someone to manage a physical location. But they don’t have online skills. That is not going to make the goals of what we’re trying to do with our online site.”

As the online retail segment matures, more companies are realizing that traditional retail marketing skills aren’t necessarily transferable to the online space. Bilello notes that people from the bricks-and-mortar world often struggle with the task of marketing new products online. “Should we send e-mails? Should we be putting banner ads up? Should we be doing search engine optimization?” Bilello says. “That is a tough skill set. Someone who comes from a traditional retailing background is thinking about newspaper ads, fliers, radio or TV ads, they’re not necessarily thinking about online tools because they don’t even know what those things are.”

Changing attitudes

Certainly, there are enough people in the market looking to fill these types of jobs. Big mergers in the works (Kmart Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co..; Federated Department Stores Inc. and The May Department Store Co.) will result in massive layoffs, leading to a glut of retail professionals looking for work. But Rogers notes that most of these people aren’t ideally qualified for online positions.

“If you’re looking for a woman’s footwear buyer, 100 candidates have something to do with retail, 10 will have had some sort of footwear exposure, and if you’re really lucky one or two might be close,” Rogers says. And the same is true of prospective employees with online skills. “And then who knows?” she says. “Are they in the right salary range? Are they articulate? Can they spell?”

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