June 13, 2007, 12:00 AM

Collaboration between marketing and technology is critical

Whether web-only or catalog-based, marketing and information technology departments must work in tandem to ensure technology tools support an e-retailer’s mission.

Catalog apparel and home furnishings retailer Blair Corp. has spent about seven years learning how to blend marketing and information technology efforts to buy and deploy technology tools. Jeff Parnell, a former vice president at Blair Corp. and now an independent consultant, says the process is unique to each company. “It’s not an exact science,” Parnell told the audience at an e-retailing technology session during last week’s Internet Retailer 2007 Conference & Exhibition in San Jose, Calif.

For Blair, No. 118 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, and many other established retailers, opening the Internet as a sales channel introduced a basic requirement for unifying technology and marketing resources. “Blair was in direct mail for nearly 100 years. When I joined the company in 2000 there was no web site,” Parnell said.

But in Blair’s collaborative environment, information technology and marketing have worked at working together on initiatives. Communication up front and along the way helps ensure successful technology implementations, Parnell said. “We assign benefits to all initiatives. Marketing and information technology get the list and know what we will spend on technology projects. As we achieve progress – or not – everything is communicated,” he added.

Bringing information technology to the forefront of e-retailing business strategies is an important step toward online sales success, said Mark Layton, CEO at PFSweb Inc., parent of web-only electronics retailer eCost.com. ECost.com is No. 111 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide

“Information technology for years was seen as a back-office function and many still see it that way. But when you realize all business functions need a technology interface, working together becomes critical,” Layton said.

Layton and Parnell agreed that strategy and policy for marketing and information technology to work in tandem should be set by top executives to ensure success.

A shift to more collaboration between marketing and information technology occurred recently, said Rob Garf, director of research at AMR Research, an e-commerce and technology consulting company. That’s a far cry from the dark days of the late 1990s. “There were no brand strategies, online functions weren’t integrated with offline and online wasn’t tied into bricks-and-mortar stores. Back then, store associates had no idea how to handle returns,” Garf said.

Technology fixes were limited because of inflexible software packages, marketing departments had a difficult time using the software that was available and information system integration was cumbersome.

Today, however, technology has improved and e-retailers are investing in cross-channel interaction, combining front- and back-end information technology, Garf said.

Technology change will be more pronounced in the next decade, Garf predicted. “70% of retailers will look to revamp their software platforms in the next decade. Not update, but a total revamp,” he added.

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