With e-commerce sales doubling in the past five years and markets expected to almost double again by 2026, companies are making sizable investments in their e-commerce capabilities. In many cases, however, companies’ mindset around e-commerce has not grown to match this expansion in investment. Many companies are locked into an increasingly outdated view of e-commerce as an “add-on” to their main business.

The most successful e-commerce companies have upgraded their vision to one of becoming indispensable to the customer through an exponentially deeper level of engagement online and offline.

Delivering on this vision requires companies to put digitally driven commerce at the center of their organizations so they can orchestrate experiences that meet customers’ ever-rising expectations. Some large companies are generating tens of millions of dollars in new value through a deeper commitment to digitally driven commerce, and they’re doing it quickly. Many more, however, are struggling to make the leap or are scared off by cost or channel-conflict concerns.

To understand what shifts are needed and how incumbents are making them, McKinsey surveyed nearly 50 senior commercial executives, discussed the future of e-commerce with more than 75 business leaders, and analyzed more than 1,000 digital-commerce programs.

A key finding of the McKinsey survey is that many of the most promising e-commerce programs falter because the business is simply not ready to change. There are a variety of reasons, but many of them boil down to a lack of expertise in digital and a fear of altering the status quo. Three actions are crucial to combat this tendency:

  • Hire “Doer” Talent at Scale

The natural tendency in addressing talent issues is to hire a head of e-commerce or a head of digital. But companies often don’t provide these leaders sufficient authority or resources to make the necessary changes, leading many of them to leave in two to three years.

Companies need to commit to hiring digital leadership and enough supporting digital talent to create critical mass for change. And while they need key skills—data science, cloud engineering, design—it’s more important that they have key “doer” traits:

  • Preference for action over analysis
  • Obsession with the customer
  • Willingness to test ideas quickly with real customers.

This focus on “doer” talent is critical. McKinsey reports that they have seen successful e-commerce CEOs spend as much as 70 percent of their time on recruiting.

  • Promote Risk Taking and Learning Over Safe Bets

The pace of change will reward those companies that are fastest to learn and adapt. The best learning happens through constant experimentation. That requires companies to not only become proponents of the “fail fast” philosophy, but also to make experimenting easy and cheap by creating dedicated areas to test ideas and then capturing and sharing the learnings.

  • Keep All Relevant Functions Focused on Delivering the Best Customer Experience

E-commerce requires a coordinated capability across the enterprise. That’s because so many parts of the business are needed to deliver on the customer experience—smooth and fast delivery, inventory availability, tailored prices and promotions, consistent marketing, and informed sales. One e-commerce executive said: “My job was to build capabilities across the entire enterprise, so I embedded e-commerce teams in functions, including supply chain, product management, and sales.” These teams are responsible for both helping functions better understand how to take advantage of digital capabilities and collaborating across functions on specific product initiatives.

Given the complexity of e-commerce and the likelihood that rapid change will continue, companies will need to recruit e-commerce leaders who can manage complexity and maintain focus on the customer as the key driver of change. These leaders will need to be able to communicate clearly about innovations and departures from the traditional commercial roles and to exhibit flexibility and creativity not heretofore required in those roles, acting as a full partner to company leadership in predicting and fulfilling on a rapidly changing environment. Attracting and retaining this kind of talent can be a daunting process, particularly for companies that have not confronted the realities that we have outlined above. A relationship with a recruiting firm that understands and stands for the company’s purpose is likely to produce the best results. An effective recruiting partner will partner with the company to identify the right combination of skill and experience to find the top candidates and to convey to them what it is the hiring company stands for.


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