Exclusive survey results on e-commerce hiring

For merchants and vendors that sell the software and services that make online operations hum, marketing and technology jobs have become especially hard to fill, according to the results of an exclusive Internet Retailer survey.

Thad Rueter

Women's eyewear e-retailer Rivet & Sway needs more e-commerce specialists.

The 18-month-old web-only startup has gotten by with generalists—its creative director also nurtures the firm's e-mail marketing program, for example—but its growth plan requires an expert devoted full time to that task, says recently appointed CEO Sarah Bryar, a veteran of Amazon.com Inc. Software technology experts are required, too, and need to "flex easily" between front- and back-end web systems.

Finding that help may prove challenging. "Talented software engineers are always in demand, so it's a highly competitive environment," she says. "The good ones rarely apply for jobs. You have to go find them."

The hiring needs of Seattle-based Rivet & Sway match those of many respondents to a new Internet Retailer survey designed to measure e-commerce recruitment and retention trends. For both merchants and the vendors who sell the technology and services that make online operations hum, marketing and technology jobs are the greatest hiring needs and the biggest hiring challenges.

Consider these figures from the survey:

Those findings come as no surprise to Wendy Weber, president of executive recruitment firm Crandall Associates Inc. "Everyone seems to be looking for good e-commerce merchandise managers, analysts and web development folks," she says.

The survey, conducted online from mid-June through mid-July, attracted 85 responses, of which 56 came from retailers and 29 from vendors. The responses were anonymous, but many participants left comments about the difficulty of recruiting that were in line with comments from retailers, vendors and recruiters interviewed for this story.

They all agree e-commerce is expanding, and demands workers who can adapt to change. But the kind of employee they're looking for varies from one business to the next.

For every retailer like Rivet & Sway aiming to find workers with specific skills, there is another company looking for individuals with a broader background. For example, New York-based online wine retailer Zachys.com has been advertising this summer for a new e-commerce director to handle such tasks as search, e-mail and social media marketing, oversee web design, and also have an MBA in marketing, finance or strategy, according to an online job posting from e-commerce recruiter Harry Joiner, whose EcommerceRecruiter.com will handle some 200 candidate searches this year.

Joiner points to changes and trends he's witnessed in e-commerce hiring. For one, Joiner, over his nine years of e-commerce recruitment, says he's seen a shift from companies seeking technologists oriented toward marketing to marketers who understand the technology upon which e-commerce relies. Companies tend to find the former within their organization, but often recruit the latter from outside, he says.

Joiner says that the hardest e-commerce jobs to fill these days are leadership positions. "I can find plenty of people who understand the nuts and bolts of direct-to-consumer e-commerce," he says. "It's harder to find business-oriented leaders."

E-retail veteran Robert Gilbreath would agree.

Newly installed this year as vice president of marketing for shipping software vendor ShipStation, Gilbreath had worked at e-retailer Calendars.com LLC, which hired him in 2009 and where he most recently was vice president of e-commerce marketing and analytics for the seller of calendars, puzzles, games and books. While there, he hired what he calls a "jack of all trades" who knew how to handle a range of e-commerce tasks, from social media to design. "But there was no business savvy there," he says.

The lesson? Being generally bright and hard-working, and attracting thousands of followers on social media and proving oneself a master of, say, tagging and cropping online images, doesn't necessarily mean the candidate is suited for e-commerce, or will prove a strong e-retail team leader.

Still, Gilbreath and others say, a lack of deep business experience doesn't automatically disqualify job seekers, and that's especially true for younger companies. Three-year-old web-only eyeglass retailer Warby Parker, for instance, offers an in-house management course taught by co-CEO Dave Gilboa for employees who take on added responsibilities, including overseeing others, as the company grows.

That kind of growth opportunity may well help a company retain e-retail staffers, the survey suggests. Asked to name the top three factors in keeping e-commerce workers, compensation/benefits unsurprisingly came in first for retailers, with 32.2%. Next up was company reputation, 28.7%, followed by interesting work environment, 26.4%, and the challenging nature of work, 21.8%. For vendors, 20.7% cited an interesting work environment, followed at 17.2% by compensation/benefits. In third place, with 14.9% each, were the challenging nature of the work and company reputation.

No doubt casual work environments, catered lunches and giving workers budgets to design their offices—the case at Austin, Texas-based ShipStation, Gilbreath says—can play a role in keeping the best employees on the payroll. Weber, though, has noticed a shift in those attitudes, even as the recent film "The Internship" furthered the popularity of Google Inc.'s informal workplace and sparked envy among cubicle denizens.

"The 'fun' work place is very 1990s," she says. "Today's e-commerce pros want a piece of the action." That can mean compensation for leading initiatives that boost profits, either by increasing sales or cutting costs.

The survey makes clear that e-commerce companies are competing on pay to keep their workers. While Gilboa says his company's internal surveys show that employees value company culture and the "ability to learn and grow" far more than pay and benefits, the Internet Retailer survey points in a different direction. Not only does it show that compensation leads other factors in retaining talent, but 60.3% of participating retailers say they pay their e-commerce workers more than other employees. 37.9% reported that pay is about the same, while 1.7% said the pay was less.

But just because they're being paid more doesn't mean e-commerce staffers aren't open to better offers. 70.7% of retailers report that e-commerce employees typically have shorter tenures than do other staff members.

So what's next for e-commerce hiring? Mobile commerce seems like one safe bet. 17.2% of retailer respondents say they plan to hire m-commerce staff in the coming year.

Recruiting those workers likely won't be easy, given how new mobile technology is, combined with an increasing demand for experts, including mobile developers, according to retailers leaving comments in the survey. As one retailer put it, for "mobile, there is not enough experience in the industry to have a good pool [of candidates] yet."

Many of those candidates will likely be able to write their tickets in the coming years. But for many e-retailers, the frustrations may grow as more consumers use phones and other web-enabled devices to shop, increasing the competition to hire top talent.



Even in high-tech centers, recruiting can be tough

Hiring e-commerce workers in Austin, Texas, should be as easy as finding a band rocking out in one of the Sixth Street bars down there, right?

Not so, says Robert Gilbreath.

"It's getting harder," says the vice president of marketing for shipping software vendor ShipStation.

Not only do such e-commerce firms as Calendars.com LLC, Golfsmith International Holdings Inc., Dell Inc. and Bazaarvoice Inc. make their homes in or around the Texas state capital city, but so do tech-savvy entrepreneurs hungry for talent. Combine that with what Gilbreath says is the tendency of workers to stay at companies for a while and an unemployment rate (5.8%) below national (7.6%) and state averages (6.9%) in May, and executives looking to hire for such jobs in Austin can face a search that lasts several months or more.

But make no mistake: Locating an e-commerce business or an e-commerce department in a city that offers sophistication in culture, food and nightlife can pay off.

For instance, eyeglass retailer Warby Parker benefits not only from the growing tech presence in New York City but also the access to Manhattan's fashion and design scene, says co-CEO Dave Gilboa—a world that includes design-oriented e-retailer Fab.com.

There are other reasons beyond headquarter proximity why such established retail players as Walgreen Co., W.W. Grainger Inc. and Staples Inc. have located their dedicated e-commerce offices in major urban areas—in Staples' case, its "Velocity Lab" in Cambridge, Mass.

"The Boston/Cambridge area is quickly becoming a hotbed for technology talent," says Faisal Masud, the chain's executive vice president, global e-commerce and marketing. "Our proximity to the innovation community there, with universities like Harvard and MIT, and our startup mentality has enabled Staples to recruit great talent."

Multiple respondents in the Internet Retailer e-commerce hiring survey this summer highlighted the challenge of luring top candidates away from the top tech areas. "Finding e-commerce experience is hard is our geographical area," reads one such comment.

But paradises can bring their own problems. Take Rivet & Sway, a startup that sells eyeglasses online. It is based in Seattle, a metropolitan area home to such giants as Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp., Nordstrom Inc. and Walgreen-owned Drugstore.com, along with assorted other Internet-focused firms.

"Since much of our recruiting depends on referrals and top talent recruiters, we would be hard-pressed to build our team in a smaller community," says CEO Sarah Bryar. "The biggest challenge we have in Seattle is that much of the talent is working in larger companies. Not only is it hard to pull talent out, but it's also hard to find people truly motivated and ready to take on the risk/reward profile of an early stage, scrappy company."


Amazon, Austin, Calendars.com, crandall associates, e-commerce hiring, e-commerce recruiting, e-commerce technology, Faisal Masud, Harry Joiner, m-commerce, mobile commerce, online marketing, Rivet & Sway, Robert Gilbreath, Sarah Bryar, ShipStation, software, Staples, Warby Parker, Wendy Weber, Zachys.com