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“Growing Pains: Etailing in the Noughtweens” – Editorial from Internet Retailing’s January 2010 issue.

Here’ the text version of my editorial from January 2010’s Internet Retailing magazine (you can see the digital version here:

In this piece I’m building on a previous editorial, pondering the role of the eCommerce Director (compared with the ‘chief electricity officer’ – see this article: Going beyond the simple question of ‘whither ecommerce directors’ I reflect on a trend seen in the sector to move to a more pan-channel, commercial set of demands from ecommerce professionals.

As the Naughties recede and the Naughteens approach, retailers are caught in the uncomfortable transition zone – the ‘Naughtweens’, if you will. Ian Jindal ponders an appropriate bearing for retailers in these turbulent times.

The Naughties were rollercoaster years. From the exuberance of the dot com bubble, crashing in 2001 alongside the global shock of the 9/11 attach, rising from 2005 on asset-backed consumer euphoria and hitting a wall at the end of 2008 in the reverberations from the global financial crisis.

The steady growth of the ecommerce channel in 2009 signals both its maturing as a valid option in the customer’s eyes and the growing capability and professionalism of the channel within retailers. We have an increased understanding of the channel’s role: it’s an orthodoxy that cross-channel customers are worth more and that the web acts to set preferences and aid in-store purchasing. It is more than a price-led, acquisition-oriented place for wham-bam rapid conversion.

For the last decade, however, we in eCommerce have had (speak it quietly) a relatively easy time. Within established retailers we’ve been able to emulate our elders, as it were, in store and appropriate from the digital pure-players at the same time. Our stock’s been bought for us, the brand’s been created for us, the logistics and operations largely existed. Our job was to assemble these components, jam on a more or less functional web interface and sprinkle some design magic, PPC and a touch of promotional carrot. Kapow!

In 2010 the world’s much less simple. One of the traumas of the teen years is realisation that childhood’s receding while adulthood is neither as easy nor as attractive as once it seemed. This, in the Naughtweens, is where ecommerce stands. Our easy growth is not quite over, but – as a result of our success – we’re no longer marginal, precocious and separate. We have to play a full part within the multichannel business – maintaining our own contribution while contributing actively to the success of the overall business.

If our Boards and colleagues are making demands, then so too are customers. No longer willing to stick within our channels, they insist on cross-shopping (in-store collection, expanded product information in-store, extended ranges, more phone-based support and contact, evermore demanding research and information – and on top of that they want us to engage via social media and quasi-publishing activities). Our early mastery of ‘analytics’ now bites us since we’re a natural home for the onerous “single view of the customer” projects, aggregating in-store baskets with newer behavioural metrics and satisfaction measures… Our colleagues expect the same level of expertise and innovation we’ve shown over the last decade to be applied to brand engagement, customer development, supplier development, new commercial sales approaches – not to mention the KPIs, metrics and business operating models to support these changes. We are expected to lead across the whole of our business.

In parallel we need to understand and emulate the bravery and conviction of our buyers and sourcing colleagues who take risks to create trends and products for our future customers; the daring of our Estate planning colleagues who invest in new stores and centres through market turmoil; the care and skills of our front-line colleagues serving customers directly and exposed while we twiddle an algorithm in the comfort of Head Office.

In the Naughtweens we’ll see major restructuring to align the rhetoric with new cross-channel organisation. eCommerce teams will be under pressure to be multichannel and to maintain margin. Customers become more demanding, and staff demand career development beyond just ‘being in ecommerce’. Finally, there’ll be no sympathy for underperformance of our activity since our Boards increasingly see core eCommerce operations as a ‘solved problem’.

My previous Chairman’s commented to me that there’s only ever a ‘gap in the market’ for “those with sharp elbows – and the willingness to use them”. In the Naughtweens eCommerce leaders will emerge, over and above eCommerce professionals, who will establish a new place for eCommerce within multichannel retail – synthesising learning from traditional retailing while extending new skills beyond their own teams into the business as a whole. The process is certain to be difficult and no doubt unpleasant in parts, but by the time we emerge from the ‘Tweens and Teens we’ll have laid the basis for future performance.

Internet Retailing will be reporting, provoking and helping along the way, and to all of our readers (leaders, professionals, colleagues, all) we wish every success and happiness in 2010.