August 2, 2012, 10:19 AM

Brands bring e-commerce expertise into the board room

On the same day, Express and Coach name web retailing leaders to their boards.

It’s a coincidence, but no fluke, that today two major brands in U.S. retailing announced adding e-commerce executives to their boards of directors. Handbag marketer Coach Inc. selected Stephanie Tilenius, formerly of eBay, PayPal and Google’s digital commerce arm, who now is part of prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Express Inc., the retail chain that sells apparel to younger women and men, picked Sona Chawla, president of e-commerce at drugstore chain Walgreen Co.

It’s no mystery why these companies are looking for executives with deep e-commerce experience. They know consumers regularly start their shopping trips with web research, and often never make it to the mall, finding what they want online and buying it there and then. That accounts for why web store sales are growing at least five times faster than sales at bricks-and-mortar stores.

And the challenge for traditional retail is only getting tougher now that consumers are carrying the web with them as they shop, in the form of their Internet-connected smartphones. Retail chains are hustling to respond to this trend, as we describe in detail in the cover story of this month’s issue of Internet Retailer magazine. I’ve no doubt their new board colleagues will be seeking the opinions of Tilenius and Chawla about how to respond to this phenomenon.

One other point that’s noteworthy about today’s announcements: They show the important role women play in online retailing. While the Internet’s biggest names may be Mark, Sergey and Larry, not far behind them are executives named Sheryl and Marissa.

And the role of women in the retailing side of the Internet has been, if anything, even greater than at companies like Facebook and Google. Dawn Lepore was the CEO at for seven years, until leaving last year following Walgreen’s acquisition of the web-only retailer; among other things, she sits on the boards of eBay and Fiona Dias headed up e-commerce at Circuit City before moving to GSI Commerce and now playing a central role at ShopRunner, the online shipping and loyalty program that competes with Amazon Prime. And Fiona serves on the board of retail chain Advance Auto Parts. In another example, I recently interviewed Kirsten Green, the founder of venture capital firm Forerunner Ventures that recently raised $40 million to fund startup e-commerce companies.

There are plenty of other examples of women playing leading roles at e-commerce companies and web retailers. Maybe it has to do with women doing most of the shopping in U.S. households; more likely it’s related to women doing better in school and accounting for a growing percentage of the top graduates from top colleges and business schools. Whatever the reason, some big brands are very anxious to have the advice of these well-respected female e-commerce leaders.

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