Growth In Online Channels Delivers Retail Careers For MBAs

The retail world is in a war for digital sales, opening careers for MBA students at disruptive online retailers and luxury brands.

Amazon, the fast-growing online retailer, has become a magnet for MBA students. Its mixture of entrepreneurialism and disruptive innovation is helping to create a new breed of retail business. Miriam Park, the company’s university recruiter, is a big advocate of the MBA as a rich source of talent.

She believes MBA students will provide long-term value for a business which is in many ways still in its infancy. This includes hiring aggressively from Paris to Michigan. It hast just begun building a 15-storey office tower in Silicon Roundabout, London’s cluster of tech start-ups, for 5,000 employees.

Amazon illustrates the way retailers are able to benefit from hiring managers to lead rapid global expansion.

It is something that many retail groups are starting to do, as they face the threat of digital disruption.

The sector has become a blend of bricks-and-mortar stores and slick online sales channels. The omnichannel approach makes for fertile breeding ground for leaders, who must innovative by mastering a range of functions – from logistics to marketing and from tech to finance.

“Traditional retailers are finding the need to have online channels for customers, so there is some demand for MBA hiring,” says Angela Williams, associate director of the MBA Career Centre at Georgetown McDonough School of Business.

While retail groups fight to find a place in the new digital economy, they are leaving a trail of opportunity that many MBA students are beginning to follow.

Amazon is now a top-three recruiter at the majority of top-ranking business schools in both Europe and the US.

Yet it is in some ways the antithesis of a traditional retailer. Older brands, often in the luxury space such as LVMH or Luxottica, are threatened by online competitors and are investing heavily in both technology and digitally-skilled staff.

According to IHL, a global research company, retailers are expected to spend more than $190 billion on IT worldwide in 2015, with key focuses on expanding into new channels and mobile shopping.

Not only are MBAs attracted to this innovation but retail groups are looking to business schools for younger, tech-savvy business managers.

“Recruitment demand is strong in the e-commerce sphere,” says Conrad Chua, head of MBA careers at Cambridge Judge Business School. “In a reflection of the changes that technology is bringing to retail, the jobs for MBAs are now in areas such as logistics, customer insights, and working on partnerships with third party sellers.”

It is not just online leaders that are seeking MBAs, but the high-end luxury brands that have long been a recruiter at business schools, Conrad says, while traditional retailers like John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Boots are looking for experienced hires. UK supermarket group Tesco is hiring a raft of MBAs into finance and logistics roles.

Sandra Rodriguez is a graduate of MIP Politecnico Di Milano, a leading business school with roots in Milan, Italy’s luxury fashion capital.

She used to be an industrial engineer in her native Mexico but was able to leverage the school’s location to land a management job at Luxottica, the luxury retailer behind brands such as Ray-Ban sunglasses.

“Italy has great brands and products,” says Sandra. “The relationship between the school and luxury brands might be a good start to connect [with luxury companies] and get to know the alumni, to open opportunities for jobs.”

Vivian Alvarez Rosales, co-chair of the luxury and retail club at the Tuck School of Business, says she is building relationships with alumni at luxury groups Chanel, Estee Lauder, Warby Parker, Tory Burch and LVMH. “[It is] to gain access to their expertise and guidance, as well as more summer and full-time job opportunities."

But there is no doubt that technology has changed consumer behaviour. Footfall in UK retail stores fell by nearly 1% in September 2014, according to the British Retail Consortium – but online retailers saw growth of 7% during the same period, according to IMRG, the industry association for online retailers.

“Customers now want to be able to buy anything, at competitive prices and delivered quickly,” says Conrad.

In a 2014 survey of 60 UK retailers by TLT Solicitors, a law firm specializing in retail, 90% ranked website and mobile sales as their most important investment areas. This is opening up career opportunity for graduates with the right strategic expertise.

“Building processes and capability to support these consumer expectations requires strong strategic thinkers,” says Angela at Georgetown McDonough.

She adds that the business school has seen strong demand from Amazon in particular for its students, who are being recruited into marketing, retail, finance, operations, and product management roles in the US, China and Japan.

Online groups have been the top recruiters at many business schools, according to Paula Quinton-Jones, director of careers services at Hult International Business School, for both MBA and executive MBA students.

“We are seeing many EMBA opportunities in commercial areas such as sales, marketing and operations,” she says, particularly for those with a background in business improvement and six sigma. “Those with experience in procurement, logistics and supply chain continue to be in high demand.”

She says that MBAs are branching out of traditional roles in strategy and consulting, and into companies where they can lead large teams and can see a tangible impact of their work on bottom line results. This feeds into the start-up culture of disruptive online groups like ASOS, Flipkart and Amazon.

“This is driving the popularity of online retailers,” says Paula. “They are household brands so students feel proud to work for them, and the impact they can have is immediate.”

They have also been opening up their recruitment – past retail or e-commerce experience is not necessary, according to Deb Findlay, a recruitment lead at the Careers Centre at Oxford Saïd Business School.

“[They are] focusing more on an individual’s transferable skills, customer focus and their ability to work in an extremely fast, ever-changing and often ambiguous, data driven environment,” she says.

She adds that e-commerce companies often look for people who are highly analytical, commercially savvy and who are able to make strategic decisions from large volumes of data – attributes common to many MBAs.

It is the generalist approach taken by MBA programs, which seek to educate managers in a range of sectors and functions, which is attractive to retail companies trying to master the online world.

E-commerce is seen as difficult for managers because they must master a range of different skills – from delivery logistics to big data.

One of the biggest career ambitions of MBAs is to move out of narrow generalist roles and into commercial roles where they can have impact across a wide area.

“E-commerce provides a great platform for this, as managers not only have to understand and be able to work across a variety of functions and disciplines but they also need to be agile thinkers to adapt to the pace of change and respond to customer demand,” says Paula at Hult.

Where retailers are trying to innovate is in data-driven technology, and areas such as payments and micro-location systems, which allows stores to track shoppers’ mobile phones when they are close by and beam information and offers directly to their devices.

Paula believes that MBAs are able to leverage their programs’ increasing focuses on big data and analytics. A strong skillset in these areas will help them to stand out in a crowd.

This is particularly true of marketing, where they need to understand the measurements involved in digital platforms, Paula says, and business improvement and efficiency.

“It is the evolution of the MBA skillset – from the focus on the consultant and advisor to the decision-maker using data,” she adds.

For Miriam at Amazon, it makes sense to recruit MBA students. She is looking for candidates that can work in cross-functional roles and in an international environment.

“MBAs are able to move across our businesses during a career at Amazon, which allows them to grow,” she says, “and to use their degrees in ways they may not have considered while in school.”  

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