October 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

New Wave

Ever-changing requirements in the e-commerce job market keep recruiters nimble.

When online jeweler BlueNile.com was ­looking to fill the position of senior vice president of marketing, it didn’t have to look far, though it did find its executive in what some might consider an unlikely hunting ground for a marketing chief: IT. Until this spring, Darrell Cavens was the company’s chief ­technology officer.

Marketing is an art and a ­science, but in an online environment where the outcome of every effort can be quickly measured, hiring decisions such as BlueNile’s suggest it’s the science that is increasingly moving to the fore. At the same time, new iterations of the applications needed to operate an e-commerce site are easier to wrangle, the result of deliberate effort on the part of application developers. That, in theory, reduces the demands on e-commerce ­marketers to be technology whizzes as well, requiring them to understand what the technology can do but not to program it themselves.

Straddling the split
Blue Nile’s story and the simplification of many formerly arcane e-commerce applications may seem to be opposing trends, but they’re both representative of what drives hiring at e-retailers today. Effective online marketing, now evolved far beyond the brochureware of earlier days, requires marketers to have a greater understanding of software and web-enabled technology than formerly, when the e-commerce function was firmly in the ­control of IT. Correspondingly, e-commerce technology developers today are producing applications that more readily put that understanding at the disposal of more non-technical specialists.

In a way, it was easier to write job descriptions for e-commerce positions in the industry’s early days, when IT was more clearly tech-focused. Today, the ideal candidate for retail-specific functions such as e-commerce strategy director, marketing director or CEO straddles the traditional split between marketing and information technology.

That combination can be difficult to find, as it represents a set of experiences not found on any ­traditional corporate career track and in few business school ­curricula. It also makes tracking data on what’s happening in the retail, e-commerce job market more challenging now than a few years ago, when tracking the job marketplace for specific IT skills that could span industries, such as abilities with different programming languages, was also taken as a proxy for retail e-commerce jobs.

“In the EC-nascent state, this was truly almost an industry and a function within itself,” says Marcel Legrand, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at online job recruiter Monster Worldwide. “Now the classification of IT specialist within the retail world is mutating into a standard occupational code that doesn’t know where it sits. That’s not a problem, but at TJ Maxx, for example, they might say, my technology provider is the one is running the feature functions for buying online. At Best Buy, it might be very different.”

Confusion over skills
In fact, confusion in the hiring ranks over exactly what skills a specific e-commerce position at a specific company does require is something of an issue facing recruiters. “These days, these positions tend to morph into many different things not defined in a traditional company setting,” says Andy Stevenson, senior director of Crutchfield.com. “It’s hard to find the right blend.” Recently, Crutchfield took six months to fill a senior management position in web design and development and four months to fill the position of director of online merchandising.

Harry Joiner, founder of e-commerce recruiting firm Marketingheadhunter.com, which handled Crutchfield’s search, says the hardest employment searches are the ones where the retailer doesn’t really know what it wants. Take, for example, the case of an e-retail HR manager charged with filling the-for many-mysterious function of managing search engine marketing. “If someone doesn’t know the difference between natural and paid search, they’ll say they want a candidate who really understands Google AdWords and also organic search,” Joiner says. “That’s like saying they’re looking for a zebra but they want it to look like a hippo. They take a different set of skills to leverage.”

So how is an e-retailer to staff up for competing functional demands? Divide and conquer, experts say. Retailers that get it are coming to the realization that an effective e-commerce operation requires workers across a variety of skills. “You are seeing a bifurcation of experiences and talent. So the analytics person is not necessarily going to be very strong at technology, or very strong at marketing and promotions,” says Legrand. “E-commerce departments are now comprised of people across different skills sets. That means your e-commerce director will be versed in a couple of those, but he doesn’t necessarily have to be the person who writes Ruby on Rails.”

Dropping compensation
If e-commerce functions and responsibilities are spreading out across more people in the department, that could be one factor why compensation for some of those jobs has dropped since e-commerce’s earlier IT-focused boom days. The era before the dot-com investment bomb of 2002 saw big salaries, big hiring bonuses and big perks for high- and even mid-level executives with enough entrepreneurial spirit and tech knowledge acquired on the fly to work magic-or so the hiring companies hoped-in the then little-understood medium of the Internet.

But data from Mercer Human Resource Consulting’s annual E-Commerce Survey show the picture’s changed since then. For example, the median cash compensation for a top retail or wholesale industry e-commerce executive in 2002, an annual $375,000, has dropped to $248,600 in 2006. Compensation for other retail-specific e-commerce job titles has dropped as well, according to Mercer’s data. Median cash compensation for e-commerce strategy director dropped from $207,600 to $145,000 in 2006, while annual compensation from e-commerce marketing director dropped from $133,600 to $104,700.

What’s happened in the retail e-commerce job market between 2002 and this year to drive down some salaries from earlier times? The de-mystification of the web, the vagaries of the economy, and a change in compensation structure are all factors.

In 2002, the head of e-commerce in a brick-and-mortar organization was either a talented young ­maverick or “a very established person with a track record of being able to build something,” observes David Van De Voort, principal human capital consultant at Mercer. “At that executive level, you almost had to bribe them into going into e-commerce then, so they got some pretty big cash incentives.”

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