June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Good help is hard to find

With online talent in short supply, retailers increasingly grow their own.

Scenic Cumberland, in the lush Potomac River valley in western Maryland, may beckon to hikers and bicycling enthusiasts. But it’s tough convincing the kind of skilled workers online retailers need to move to the city of 21,000 nearly a three-hour drive from Washington.

Just ask Kim Butler, president of web retailer Dishes, Décor and More, which is based in Cumberland. She has tried without success advertising open positions in newspapers in such nearby cities as Morgantown, W. Va., Altoona, Pa., and Hagerstown, Md. Nor has she gotten much from online job sites.

That’s why Butler was excited to hear about a new course this spring in Electronic Marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. “Even if they are just graduating from college, they will be leaps and bounds ahead of what I’m going to be able to hire in this community,” she says.

Recruiting is particularly tough for e-retailers like Butler, who can’t offer the glamour of big cities, or the resume-enhancing allure of a household name like Google or Amazon. But finding skilled workers is tough for all Internet retailers at a time when unemployment is low, high-tech hiring is up and e-retailers are looking for people with skills that didn’t even exist a decade ago, such as developing pay-per-click advertising campaigns and analyzing how web site visitors respond to video.

“The market seems hot,” says David Scifres, the former head of e-commerce at CampingWorld.com and now a vice president with a unit of parent company Affinity Group Inc. “This is the most jobs I’ve seen in the market since 1997-98.”

Where to look

Like Butler, Scifres is looking for bright young university graduates to fill lower-level positions in marketing and programming. Executive recruiters are getting a lot of calls from online retailers looking to fill managerial positions. And some retailers have come up with a special perk or recruitment tactic designed to lure workers with Internet-related skills (see salary survey, page 108).

Evidence abounds for the robust demand for tech workers.

AeA, formerly the American Electronics Association, reported in April that the U.S. added 146,600 high-tech jobs in 2006, up nearly 68% from 87,400 jobs added the year before. Recruiting and placement firm Robert Half Technology reported a month earlier that its survey of CIOs found 14% planned to add full-time information technology staff in the second quarter while 2% planned staff cuts, a net 12% increase that was the second-highest in five years.

And when workers are in demand they demand more money. The Yoh Index of Technology Wages, based on wages of temporary technology professionals by placement firm Yoh Services LLC, was up 5.5% in January compared with January 2006. Wages for all U.S. civilian workers went up 3.5% in the same time, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Workers with just a few years of Internet experience are commanding substantial salaries. The 2007 National Salary Guide compiled by recruitment firm Crandall Associates says e-mail marketing managers with one to three years on the job are being paid $60,500 to $69,900 and those with four or more years $66,600 to $73,100. Internet marketing directors with one to three years experience are bringing home $80,000 to $89,300 and those with seven-plus years of work $93,800 to $122,700, the Crandall study reports.

And those are just base salaries, without counting bonuses or stock options. Harry Joiner, whose firm EcommerceRecruiter.com specializes in online retailing, this spring was working on a half-dozen vice president-level openings with larger web or multi-channel retailers. “Four of the six are paying over $200,000 base pay with a significant bonus on top of that,” Joiner says.

And wooing an experienced manager may require a signing bonus, says Les Gore, managing partner at Executive Search International, a recruiting firm. While they vary widely, Gore says a “welcome aboard” bonus for a vice president could be in the range of $25,000, reaching $100,000 for a company president or chief operating officer.

What execs want

Companies may have to pay well because there are so few managers with multi-channel experience that includes the web, says Rich Lloyd, president of Peruvian Connection Ltd., which sells luxury apparel and accessories through the web, catalog and four stores. “It’s really hard to find people who have experience in multiple channels and who understand the interaction between the web, catalogs and retail stores,” Lloyd says.

Lloyd’s own history illustrates how quickly talented people can advance. He was only 33 last year when Peruvian Connection hired him as president, scooping him up from Dell Inc., where he spent seven years in increasingly senior positions after completing his MBA at Harvard.

Why would he leave Dell for a family-owned company based on a farm outside of Kansas City? Lloyd, who admits he never expected to live in Kansas City, says, “The growth and leadership opportunities at a small or midsized firm can be attractive. And the integrity and caring with which this particular business has always operated aligns with my values.” Plus, Peruvian Connection, with web sites in the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and Germany, has an international flavor and growth potential that Lloyd finds exciting.

For Kevin Green, the opportunity to work for an up-and-coming company that had recently gone public was one reason he left Lillian Vernon, an established gift and household products catalog and web retailer, last year to become president and CEO of Celebrate Express Inc., an online retailer of party goods. Also influencing his decision, which meant moving his family from New York to Seattle, was the uncertainty at Lillian Vernon, which was about to be sold for the second time in three years.

Get your story straight

Experienced online executives will take a hard look at any potential employer, which means retailers have to demonstrate that their top executives are fully behind a coherent Internet strategy.

Billy May, a consultant who has held senior online positions at Lowe’s Cos. Inc. and Benchmark Brands Inc., says he declined to pursue a couple of jobs because senior management was new to the Internet and had unrealistic expectations. “If there’s not a clear definition of success and a clear vision that’s rooted in reality, you can easily step into a situation where you couldn’t be successful,” he says.

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