E-tail is becoming an essential selling tool, but while it is a priority for most retailers, not all have the skills and experience to be successful online. Liz Morrell reports
Internet retailing has finally come of age. After a shaky start, most retailers are now embracing the idea that their online operations complement, rather than compete with, their bricks-and-mortar businesses. But ensuring a multichannel strategy works cohesively is far from easy. It requires a talented team and board that understand and support both traditional and online retailing.
Headhunter Exley Hervey Executive Search surveyed 60 retail directors across 21 companies this summer to ask how traditional retailers could develop the expertise needed to deliver a successful multichannel strategy.
While the survey revealed a general consensus on the skills required, opinion was divided over their importance. “There is a general understanding of some of the skill sets required, but whether or not everyone can prioritise them is another matter,” says Exley Hervey managing director Lesley Exley.
Part of the confusion over the skill sets, or at least their varying importance, comes from the fact that despite the growth of online sales, not all retailers appreciate the multichannel approach. Some even still speak of it in the future tense.
Even those retail chiefs that have embraced the web as a channel to market do not believe they are experts. “They were quick to admit that they are still in a learning phase and have not yet arrived at the stage where they can exploit it to their business’s best advantage,” says the survey report.
So, what is required to achieve the right balance? Most important, says the report, is an appreciation by chief executives and their boards of directors of the importance or relevance of online retail to the business.
Directors need to be open-minded enough to see the bigger picture and have at least a grasp of the basics of internet retailing – although leaving the details to the experts was deemed to be the most sensible approach. “You don’t need a specific technical ability, but you do need to appreciate what e-tail can give you and make it work in your favour,” says a senior director of a FTSE 250 company quoted in the survey.
Exley claims chief executives need to have greater understanding of online shopping: “There has to be an appreciation by the chief executive that businesses need to tackle certain things differently; how you communicate to the customer, for example,” she says.
“One of the things that emerged from the report was that chief executives are aged 40-plus, so are used to bricks-and-mortar shopping rather than online. If they are not already shopping on the net for their own needs, it is unlikely they will go looking at competitive sites because they will expect their commercial team to do that for them.”
Retailers wouldn’t dream of not checking out the competition on the high street, so ignoring it online seems crazy. “They would be advised to look at what other people are doing in terms of shopping online,” says Exley.
Retailers also need to appreciate how internet retailing complements their physical stores – for example, understanding the notion of the hybrid consumer who researches online or by catalogue and buys in stores.
In order to get to grips with this, retail boards need to listen to their online teams. “Increasingly, the boardroom has to be informed by a group of individuals that know how to operate a web-based business and have a voice,” says Exley.
They also need a basic grasp of the technology behind their site. “The technical platform has to be understood in order to plan the investment, resources and people that are needed for it,” says Exley.
Logistical expertise needs to be needle-sharp and backed by web-specific marketing knowledge, because knowing how to address customers online is vital. This involves everything from knowing what tone to use online, to what sort of product information they may want. “Unless you really understand your customers, you run the risk of confusing them if you don’t get their needs and wants right. How you communicate your brand is crucial,” says Exley.
Technical expertise is key and retailers shouldn’t be wary of bringing in people with more of a technical background. “They should employ a team of trusted experts who may well be a lot younger and less retail-aware than they are, but who possess the appropriate web-based skill sets to help profitably develop this channel,” says the report.
There are many skills required to run a successful online and physical retail business, but the only magic formula is perhaps the one that is most sought after – the combination of sound online retailing experience and an in-depth knowledge of high street retailing allied to an understanding of how both work together.
HMV e-commerce director Gideon Lask says the key is for all employees – in stores and at head office – to think in a wholly integrated way. “We can’t afford to have people working in stores that only care about selling physical products, or online staff that only care about internet sales or downloads,” he says. “Our job as a retailer is to give our customers access to music and entertainment however they wish to consume it, whether physical formats in stores and online, downloads accessible via store kiosks or home PCs, or even on the move via mobiles. Staff have to fully embrace this new thinking if we are to be successful.”
But is there a lack of online retail talent out there? Exley believes not. “It’s growing and improving, but there are not necessarily the adequate resources yet. That will alter with time along with a willingness to trial and train,” she says.
Lask agrees, but admits the online market is very competitive. “It’s not always easy retaining employees in this sector,” he says.
Home Retail Group believes in developing internet talent – the first intake to its graduate scheme joined the company earlier this month. The two-year programme will include a grounding in e-commerce and retail disciplines. Speaking at the scheme’s launch earlier this year, Argos managing director Sara Weller said it was being positioned as more modern and rooted in the online world than traditional retail schemes. “Because we are the UK’s leading multichannel retailer, we need bright young people, to whom emerging technologies are a way of life, to fuel our future innovation,” she said.
At Comet, Rachael Walsh is two months into her role as eComet general manager – a role she assumed with no previous online work but with an experienced team beneath her. Walsh believes that, apart from specific roles such as web marketing or site design, general business acumen, a willingness to learn and a collaborative approach are more important. “In an area where you don’t need specific knowledge, you can pick it up and learn it. It’s more about the general skill set and not having a blinkered approach,” she says.
Those retailers that fail to take such an approach risk being unable to maximise the opportunities they may have as fast as they would like. They may even lose business to the competition and the chance to embrace younger customers who may turn to the web as their first port of call. Retailers need to decide the skills they want – and quickly – if they are to succeed online.
ONLINE SKILLS WISH LIST
Appreciation of the internet by the board
Selling skills honed for an online environment
Razor-sharp logistical operation and expertise
An ability to excite the customer online
A common brand story
Great customer database management
Source: Exley Hervey Executive Search