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Retailers struggle to find Net-savvy talent

Finding e-commerce experts for major retailers is like "shooting in the dark," says one recruiter.

    It isn't easy for brick-and-mortar retailers to hold onto top-level executives intrigued by the pioneer spirit of e-commerce startups, but it's even more difficult for those companies to attract seasoned talent to head up their own Internet sales strategy.

    E-commerce is so young, and the demand for expertise so great, that searching for qualified candidates to fill top e-commerce positions at major retailers is like "shooting in the dark," said Susan Bishop, president of Bishop Partners, an executive recruitment firm in New York City. "You can't say that anyone out there has done a remarkable job because so far nobody's making money."

    For many retailers, the Internet has until recently been seen as little more than a marketing tool. But the growing popularity of Internet shopping is forcing many to make online efforts a central part of their strategies. To be taken seriously as an e-commerce player, companies are moving away from outsourcing Web site and transaction development and shoring up their in-house expertise.

    To dispel candidates' doubts about their commitment to Internet sales, companies like Land's End are creating new positions, such as vice president of e-commerce, that report directly to the CEO or president.

    A major challenge is the salaries many potential recruits are demanding. The positions require experience ranging from back-end technologies that support transactions and customer service, to branding and online marketing. The larger the company, the greater the compensation, said Bishop. But many companies are offering salaries "well into the six figures" for top e-commerce executives.

    Land's End, a Bishop Partners client, is searching for a vice president of commerce in the face of declining profits but rapidly growing online sales. Last week, the company announced that it is shifting its focus away from catalog sales in favor of the Internet.

    In the fight for talent, however, Land's End has some disadvantages, not the least of which is its location. Dodgeville, Wisconsin is far from technology centers like Silicon Valley and Seattle, and doesn't offer the sophisticated urban setting of New York City or Los Angeles. Candidates with young children may be attracted to non-urban settings, said Jennifer Happillon, director of cFour Partners/ITP Worldwide, a recruiter in Santa Monica, California.

    An even greater obstacle for traditional retailers to overcome is the lure of equity and ground-level involvement at a startup. "It's difficult to compete with the promise of a large payout from an IPO or the sale of a startup," said Happillon. The fight for talent between startups and established retailers has already erupted into litigation, most notably between Amazon.com, which hired away Wal-Mart's vice president of information systems and several other executives two years ago.

    But recruiters say top e-commerce executives at brick-and-mortar retailers are just as pioneering as those who work at startups. With e-commerce still in the early stages, an executive who leads a successful transition from offline to online sales would substantially increase their market value. "The Internet is going to become less and less about startups and become simply the way we do business," said Happillon.