Multichannel teams are now involved with all aspects of business, from the boardroom to the shop floor. As retailers roll out ambitious strategies, digital talent is increasingly in demand.

Long gone are the days of lone individuals at retailers banging the drum for digital far down the chain of corporate command. As multichannel strategy increasingly becomes a board-level concern, the role of the director responsible for online and multichannel has grown, and the team with it, affecting many aspects of companies’ structures.

“Multichannel is disruptive, so the head of multichannel has to be the most disruptive person on the board of directors,” says David Kohn, who took on that role at Snow+Rock a little over a year ago.

Since his appointment in September 2011, Kohn has shaken things up. Less than three months after he joined, Snow+Rock launched in-store ordering for home delivery. In October this year, it rolled out a click-and-collect service. And over the first year of Kohn’s tenure, the percentage of sales that Snow+Rock took through its online channel grew “in the high double-digits”, he says.

Kohn was the first person to step into the multichannel role, after a short period of consultancy at the retailer spent working out exactly what form its multichannel strategy should take.

“People often confuse multichannel with ecommerce,” he says. “It’s fair to say that the real driver for bringing me into Snow+Rock was the ecommerce strategy. There were always multichannel initiatives within that role, but fundamentally, the business knew that its proportion of online sales were much lower than they should be.”

Taking it seriously

Many retailers are still uncertain about how to tackle multichannel retail and attract the skills and talent they need says Matthew Prebble, partner at management consultancy Accenture. “A lot of retailers talk about multichannel, or even omnichannel but, in reality, many are still struggling to map out the journeys they need to take to achieve that vision,” he says. “What we’re talking about here is a maturity curve and many retailers we speak to are positioned far earlier in that curve than they believe themselves to be.” In other words, not all multichannel strategies are created equal, nor are all multichannel roles.

That’s often a matter of history, says Prebble. “At many retailers, online started out as an entirely separate function from the traditional, offline business, with its own separate team.” In the early days of online commerce, that was a logical view to take. “But now, for many retailers, there has come a tipping point, where online is a big enough contributor to revenues for the rest of the business to start taking it seriously, and then the business needs to think about integrating online back into the core business.”

That would certainly seem to be the case at Snow+Rock, where Kohn has championed an integrated approach since joining. But in any retailer, he says, there will be influential people whose priorities are focused elsewhere.

He observes: “Everyone thinks they’ve got more important things to do. They’re worried about sales, store standards, staff costs, Christmas recruitment, shrinkage – and then someone comes along and says, ‘We need to introduce click-and-collect’. Quite frankly, they could really do without that hassle.”

Therefore, the head of multichannel in any retail business must be disruptive, he believes, but also wage a charm offensive. “You need the commercial nous to realise that your initiative might not be at the top of someone’s agenda, but also the personal skills to get buy-in from that person,” he says.

It’s a view echoed by Peter McKenna, who was also the first multichannel appointment for his employer, furniture retailer Dwell. McKenna has only been in his job for a few months, but already he recognises that things need to change.

“Until I joined, the online channel was part of everybody’s job but, at the same time, it was nobody’s job,” he says. Now he sees his role as the retailer’s “customer experience champion”.

But at almost every retailer, that kind of ‘joined-up’ experience is the result of many departments working together, says Chris Webster, head of retail consulting and technology at management consultancy Capgemini.

“The multichannel team that we see at our retail clients is increasingly led by a board-level leader, with a small number of their own, dedicated team, but with responsibility for coordinating the efforts of many people, from many different departments,” he says. “But as with all things multichannel, there’s many different kinds of structures out there. As a head of multichannel, you’re not operating in a world of known best practice.”

A true multichannel leader, he says, “has to be prepared to matrix manage across different functions in the organisation, typically marketing, customer service, IT, supply chain and in-store operations.

“Often, it’s a hard trick to pull off, but that’s the nature of multichannel management: coordinating multiple functions to get a good result for the customer, regardless of how they want to buy from you.”

Several multichannel vacancies at present reflect that need for cross-functional leadership skills. One, for example, mentions that responsibilities will include developing “a matrix team across business development, marketing, operations and finance”.

Team structures

At fashion retailer Reiss, Dan Lumb might have the job title ‘ecommerce director’ but, in fact, he’s responsible for coordinating the company’s entire multichannel strategy. “That means I need to have smart people with a wide range of skills on my side,” he says.

Multichannel heads at Reiss and Dwell work with all departments at the retailers

Multichannel heads at Reiss and Dwell work with all departments at the retailers

“Some report directly to me, certainly – they’re driving traffic to our websites, re-engineering pages to load faster and so on. But on a day-to-day basis, I’m interacting with a far wider cross-section of people at Reiss.”

House of Fraser’s team uses feedback from all channels across the company

House of Fraser’s team uses feedback from all channels across the company

House of Fraser

’s executive director of multichannel and international Robin Terrell, meanwhile, sees everyone in the company as part of the multichannel team. “We have a programme called ‘Voice of the Customer’ that runs across the whole business, where we take feedback from every single channel – stores, the call centre, online, mobile – and we start every single board meeting with a review of the most current information from that programme,” he says.

That said, since his appointment at House of Fraser two and a half years ago, he’s put a lot of effort into building up the skills of the dedicated multichannel team, he says. “Certain areas of multichannel retail are always more difficult to recruit for than others,” he adds. “There are very, very few people out there who are really good at online marketing, for example. There are plenty of people with impressive CVs, but do they really understand what needs to be done in your team in order to push the multichannel strategy forwards and can they be relied on to do that without direction? Not always, in my experience.”

Kohn says his most frequent interactions are with marketing, IT, distribution and in-store personnel. “Some businesses, the more mature commerce players, are restructuring entirely around multichannel. We’re not there yet but I think we’re pretty mature, so the emphasis here is very much on cross-functional liaison and working with other departments.”

At Dwell, McKenna says the idea of a large team of his own is absurd: “The whole multichannel director title only makes sense if the company operates in a matrix style,” he says. “If I grew a huge multichannel team of my own, that would be just another organisational silo, not to mention a total nonsense conceptually.”

That has a huge influence on the type of people he’s looking to recruit, he says. “The main thing I’m interested in when I talk to people, whether they’re existing employees, new recruits or job candidates, is are they able to think holistically about the customer experience, whatever role I put them in?”

The ability to manage a cutting-edge ecommerce and mobile team while ensuring their dealings with the rest of the business are meaningful and productive doesn’t come naturally to many people. It takes a particular blend of skills and experience, says Patrick Tame, chief executive of recruitment company Beringer Tame: “If I’m honest, I’m never short of candidates wanting to take on these high-level multichannel jobs. What I’m lacking is candidates who are really qualified to step into these roles.”

Keeping hold of the talent

Ecommerce experience is essential, but it will only take you so far, says Kohn of Snow+Rock. “You need to have some retail experience on your team as well because that’s what gives you the commercial know-how and the wider experience of how a retail business operates that you need to perform well in a multichannel role,” he says.

“Understanding price reductions, and how to structure voucher offers, and the incremental sales you need to offset price reductions – this is the kind of commerciality you need to be able to bring to today’s multichannel business.”

Naturally, such people are not easy to find – hence the seemingly constant 18-month cycle of musical chairs as the UK’s top multichannel hotshots move between jobs.

“The real stars in multichannel retail are the people who can see where the market is going and preempt it. In effect, they’re shaping that market, not following it,” says Webster at Capgemini, pointing to Laura Wade-Gery at Marks & Spencer and Jonathon Brown at M and M Direct as examples.

That means that the pressure is on for multichannel retailers to sort out their retention plans or, at the very least, their succession plans. But even such precautions, or even high salaries, are no guarantee of keeping hold of the most talented people.

As Tame puts it: “If you’re a talented, experienced senior or up-and-coming multichannel person, and you’re still having to justify multichannel to people in the business, then my argument would be that you shouldn’t be working for that company and that company doesn’t deserve to have you.”

But it’s not only the top-level jobs that need to change, says Accenture’s Prebble. “Successful multichannel leaders might be taking their place on the board of directors now, but further down the stack, we’re seeing an urgent need for other roles to change, too,” he points out. “Whether staff are involved in merchandising or fulfilment or supply chain, they all need to start thinking in multichannel terms, too.”

Multichannel merry-go-round

Multichannel teams are increasingly integrated in retail businesses, with high-profile heads of ecommerce occupying executive roles. The demand for talent means that the best individuals are often lured by competitors.

December 2011 Tim Curtis appointed multichannel director of Ideal Shopping Direct, leaving his previous role as managing director at Lands End.

January 2012 Guy Lister is promoted to customer and multichannel managing director at New Look after holding a number of senior roles at the firm, including chief marketing officer and managing director of stores.

February 2012 Former M and M Direct boss Steve Robinson joins the B&Q board as it strengthens its multichannel offer.

March 2012 Jon Asbury is appointed multichannel director at Go Outdoors, from Halfords, where he also headed multichannel operations.

June 2012 Ryan Thomas joins Maplin as multichannel director.

June 2012 Sainsbury’s director for digital and cross-channel Tanya Lawler joins eBay to head its UK business.

August 2012 Peter McKenna, former director of ecommerce at Bid TV and head of direct sales at The White Company, is appointed multichannel director at contemporary furniture retailer Dwell.

October 2012 It emerges that Debenhams online trading director Simon Forster will move to Selfridges as director of multichannel.