As a relatively new, rapidly growing sector, skilled ecommerce employees are in short supply for retailers.
Retailers striving to become truly multichannel risk being held back by a skills shortage in this rapidly evolving sector. “Demand is outstripping supply, which creates strong competition when recruiting, and contributes to faster staff turnover,” says Phil Syson, head of people services at lingerie retailer Ann Summers.
“Job titles are very fluid in the ecommerce space, which can lead to confusion. And ecommerce is such a comparatively new area that businesses are still learning the basics – right structures, salary benchmarks, and the most cost-effective skill sets to bring in.”
Simon Russell, director of retail operations development at John Lewis, and previously head of ecommerce, says: “At the heart of any role in retail there needs to be an understanding of what it feels like to be a customer. With 60% of people now researching online before going into the shop, it’s vital that everyone in the business has a rounded view of their needs.”
However, he says new digital channels have created a need for understanding complex customer data and this is where skills challenges crop up. “There is now a lot more science and analytics around the customer’s purchase journey,” says Russell. “The technology can give you answers about what Mrs X buys and how often she shops, but it has become more about asking the right questions, then being proactive in keeping customers engaged.”
People with commercial, fashion and very specialist technical ecommerce skills are thin on the ground, so paying headhunters or poaching from competitors is often the order of the day. Jonathan Hall, founder of ecommerce recruitment agency Cranberry Panda, says analytics experts, who examine data and user activity, sales patterns and marketing campaigns outcomes, are hardest to find because they need very specialist skills. “It’s particularly challenging to find people from a mathematical, analytics background who will also understand retail,” says Hall. “Generalist web marketing people are not too hard to recruit. Often young people are coming through with marketing degrees.” However, fashion retail employers are also in competition with web development and digital marketing agencies that hold weight in the job market, and tend to pay a bit more.
Can store staff make the switch to web? Russell says: “Our strategy is to look internally first, and we would certainly consider store employees who have demonstrated relevant skills and shown an interest in making the transition to Johnlewis.com. When it comes to marketing and merchandising, it’s now the same people doing these activities across the board, so ‘switching’ into ecommerce isn’t an issue any more.” Having said that, Russell adds: “A fair chunk of recruitment comes from other sectors such as finance or media, particularly for technical areas, and CRM and analytics.”
Some retailers outsource projects to specialist ecommerce consultants, but this can be costly, so up-skilling in-house will be on the agenda for most fashion retailers today. Digital consultant Econsultancy offers short courses on ecommerce best practice. Product executive Rebecca Malcolm says: “The entire breadth of etailing makes large demands on teams to become better online merchandisers. Fashion retailers must also know how to actually build a good team and encompass traditional and new media together.”
The traditional world of ‘direct shopping’ – catalogue retailers – is home to a great deal of multichannel talent because of its heritage in distance customer relationship marketing, payment systems, delivery and customer service management. Paul Kendrick, marketing director at home shopping group N Brown, says: “We have strength in ecommerce expertise because home shopping businesses have always been built on measuring everything that moves, so working with analytics is second nature to us.” Home shopping companies mastered delivery models long ago, and are adept at handling customer service issues and the complexities of returns in the supply chain.
Of course, multichannel talent can be found beyond fashion retail. “In other sectors there are digital marketing experts and people who are on top of data,” says Martin Newman, chief executive of ecommerce consultancy Practicology. “But from my experience, retailers recruiting for fashion multichannel jobs want people from a fashion background. That’s short-sighted in this competitive job market. There are people out there who understand what drives an ebusiness, who have mastered PPC [pay per click], search marketing and SEO [search engine optimisation] and know how to pull in and convert customers, and how to read data. If they can do those parts of the job, they can learn about the product once they’re in.”
Both large and small fashion retailers face problems attracting and retaining multichannel talent. Small companies appeal to junior job seekers because there they can gain experience across several web disciplines – they might be looking after SEO, affiliate, PPC and email marketing within one role. The downside is many people worry about job security at smaller firms and aspire to move on to the better-known brands. “Then, while larger companies appeal on the job security front, employers there have the difficulty of filling increasingly specialist roles, as they will have different teams for SEO, affiliates, email marketing, and within these are dedicated roles, and a lot of churn in the jobs as the market is evolving so fast,” says Newman.
So good people management will be needed to stem the flow of talent. By developing each individual employee’s career path, there’s more chance of encouraging good people to stay, says Newman. “There needs to be better succession planning so young enthusiastic people coming into the business can see where their career will progress over time.” By offering ongoing training, and ensuring line managers pay attention to employees’ career ambitions, loyalty is more likely. Promoting to manager level in ecommerce is a good way to retain bright people, but this needs to be managed carefully to avoid having too many managers, he adds.
A lot of this has to do with the newness of multichannel retail, and many fashion retailers are still mapping out the structure of their ecommerce teams. At set-up stage there was a natural segmentation of channel servicing, with each channel creating specialist teams. But as each channel has become more established, this non-integrated thinking between channels can lead to a disjointed consumer experience, according to Syson.
“Our experience with, not only a strong retail and ecommerce channel, but also our first direct sales channel in Parties (home shopping), shows that encouraging customer interaction across multiple channels promotes frequency, loyalty and, ultimately, greater customer lifetime value through increased share of wallet and long-term sales,” he says. “We recognise that while having the right specialists to inform the unique requirements of each channel is key, being able to respond to the multichannel agenda is not only preferable for a more consistent consumer experience, but it is ultimately more profitable. We have, therefore, been very proactive in responding to this challenge in a number of ways, including the creation of a central multichannel marketing department.”
Meanwhile, international growth of web sales in fashion is driving demand for even more specialised web roles. “Companies launching country-specific websites are tending to recruit people from those countries to head up the sites,” says Hall. “Having the right language skills and understanding of the cultural nuances and needs of shoppers in these countries is very important. I think we’ll see a lot more recruitment of people with web and language skills to run these growing international operations.”