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Fashion’s most wanted

Demand for etail staff has never been higher, making a good retention strategy a must for retailers.

The online fashion jobs market is a bit like speed dating. Young web professionals might land a £40,000 online merchandising or marketing job, but if the money’s not quite right and the culture and opportunities not exciting enough, they’ll rapidly move on to a better-looking option - of which there are many in this fast-growing sector.

With the UK ecommerce workforce, set to double between now and 2015 according to etail trade body IMRG, recruiting and retaining the top talent will be challenging for fashion companies in the coming years unless HR strategies deliver results.

So what’s happening in the market? And is there a secret to finding, and keeping, valuable ecommerce staff?

Life in the fast lane

Finding people with a good balance of commercial, fashion and specialist technical skill isn’t easy, says Jonny Challenger, managing director of fashion aggregate site Style Compare. “And with so much movement in the market, fashion retailers’ projects sometimes barely get off the ground before the hot new web developer gets an offer from a rival and is out the door.”

Martin Newman, chief executive of ecommerce consultancy Practicology, agrees. “There’s a huge amount of churn, because supply isn’t meeting demand. Every fashion company is looking to drive online sales but not many people have solid experience of doing the job.”

Etail specialists are precious. Recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel’s senior consultant Diana Moreno-Gomez explains: “They are spoiled by choice and high salaries and are fleeing organisations that aren’t truly embracing online opportunities or showing serious commitment to online development.”

She says large organisations with stronger ecommerce teams and expertise will have very specific, newly created positions encompassing a variety of aspects that are often tough to match. “But smaller firms are approaching the online development mirroring traditional structures either from similar companies or based on past experiences, which makes sourcing the right candidates a lot easier,” says Moreno-Gomez.

On the upside, there are more ecommerce professionals in the market now than a few years ago, says Laura Clarke, HR business partner at lingerie etailer Figleaves. “But as the industry develops, it’s increasingly difficult to find commercially focused people with all-round abilities,” she adds, explaining that digital marketing, online merchandising and web analytic roles can be hardest to fill.

“Being a small business, we need to hire people who can cover the skills which maybe a larger retailer could afford to hire several people for. So finding those people with all-round skills can be challenging but is key for us.”

Growing talent in-house is one option. Newman says that while people with fashion merchandising or marketing experience will be familiar with a particular brand, and will understand the company strategy, the downside is they might not understand the web space, which is increasingly complex. That’s fine for certain support roles, or perhaps extending the marketing message into the web sphere, because training can bridge the gap. “But expecting someone without the right experience to come in at a strategic level and double web sales in two years isn’t realistic,” he says.

Local heroes

Multichannel ethical clothing retailer Seasalt sees the benefit in developing people internally, particularly as its location in Cornwall makes talent difficult. “We do find talent locally and some of the specialist work, such as volume email marketing, is outsourced, but we are very keen to offer opportunities internally and develop skills through specialist training and support,” says online marketing manager Emma Hill.

“We offer work experience placements in head office, including on the web team, and the retail director and retail operations manager are always looking out for and recommending people that show a commercial talent that can be transferred to online, or people with useful skills and a genuine interest in working in ecommerce.”

Not surprisingly, fashion retailers are increasingly scouring other sectors - such as media or financial services - to find much-needed online expertise. For instance, Amazon UK hired Drapers executive editor Jessica Brown this year to become its head of fashion, tapping into her extensive industry knowledge and web publishing experience to help boost its position in the increasingly content-rich online fashion market.

“I do think it’s necessary to widen the resource pool to other industries to attract the best talent,” agrees Clarke. “We’ve hired people from other fast-paced industries such as travel and media as they possess the right aptitude and skills. Many of the skills are transferable, although it can take time to learn retail.”

So having found the best web analysts, content co-ordinators and search marketers, how can they be retained? Newman thinks junior people are less likely to be head-hunted and more likely to appreciate they’re at the start of a learning curve, so offering training and development will make all the difference and generate a return on investment.

“Many junior roles in analytics or web merchandising are good starting points, but ambitious, creative types will want to move on quickly, as they see their peers doing,” he says. “What retailers need to do urgently is put in place succession plans so these individuals can see where their career is going. If individuals are confident there’s a more senior role for them in two years time, and they’re being given training to propel them forward, they’re likely to stay put.”

He thinks fashion retailers should also adapt remuneration models to build commitment. “Rather than just offer a basic salary and a yearly bonus, you need to offer a bigger long-term bonus, based on a future growth target, so people have a vested interest in staying and performing well,” he says.
Providing a supportive, engaging working culture will help too. At John Lewis, retention levels in the ecommerce team are good, largely because the company’s co-ownership structure gives people a real purpose in what they do.

“We’re in a great position because we don’t just ask them to do a job, they are personally involved in running the business,” says Simon Russell, the department store chain’s head of multichannel. “When people are allowed to take ownership of projects, and trusted to innovate and influence the wider business, there’s a much greater level of engagement and more reasons to stay.”

Resource issues

Retailers that retain good people also work hard at providing the right resources for their ecommerce team.

Challenger gives an example: “If you have too small a team of web developers, and they can’t keep up with implementing the ideas coming from the web marketers, everyone feels unhappy and disillusioned. Big firms like John Lewis and Asos get this balance right, and have empowered teams with the right resources. There are also some smaller players - like Speedo - who have well supported and, therefore, very fulfilled ecommerce teams. They put innovations in place really quickly, and that makes the company attractive to work for.”
Plus, plenty is happening in the market to ease the talent shortage. Experienced retailers can take an MSc in Internet Retailing at Manchester Metropolitan University, for example, and there are countless intern opportunities and short courses on specialist skills such as SEO, affiliate marketing, web CRM and social commerce.

British fashion retailers have plenty to offer too. The UK leads Europe in etail, and so many of these new jobs are right at the cutting edge of commercial innovation, and should look increasingly attractive as web sales begin to account for a larger percentage of total sales.

It takes time and effort - as well as money - to generate loyalty from an ecommerce team, but it’s something fashion retailers can’t afford not to do.

Etail’s big movers

  • Dan Lumb Reiss’s new ecommerce director previously headed online at lingerie chain Boux Avenue, and was at Schuh before that
  • Gwynn Milligan Asos commercial and merchandising director was tempted to run etailer Cocosa after it was bought by Mohamed Al Fayed
  • Laura Wade-Gery In July she took up the top ecommerce job at Marks & Spencer, having previously been chief executive of Tesco.com
  • Giles Delafeld Group ecommerce director at Alexon Group since early 2011, before that Delafeld was ecommerce director at Blacks Leisure

Essentials

730,000 - people currently work in, or support, ecommerce in the UK
1.5m - people will be employed in UK ecommerce by 2015
63% - of online businesses increased staff levels over the past year
60% - of ecommerce businesses plan to bring in new staff in the coming year
Source: IMRG eJobs Index, produced by IMRG and eDigitalResearch, published July 2011

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