Strategy

How to build your grocery ecommerce team – Part 1/3

Juan Etcheverry
Juan Etcheverry November 22, 2021
How to build your grocery ecommerce team – Part 1/3

Building an ecommerce team has never been an easy task. Since the beginnings of ecommerce, digital commerce specialists have been very sought after by many industries and companies, making them highly valued, expensive and with a high staff turnover rate almost everywhere worldwide. 

A grocery ecommerce team is no exception – in fact, it’s perhaps even trickier to put together. Ecommerce in the grocery industry is probably one of the most complex existing operations (maybe only matching some niche B2B ones). This complexity is owed to large SKU volume and extensive catalogs, multiple warehouses, distribution centers and stores to pick from, high stock rotation and frequent stockouts, dozens of items per order, multiple delivery methods and a low margin business that can only drive on scale and operational efficiency. 

Still, if you have a clear view over the key roles of the ecommerce area, coupled with a growth strategy aligned with your team’s structure, and you align other areas and suppliers to this model, you can successfully operate any grocery ecommerce, regardless of size and type. 

This blog series is meant to offer you that clear view and equip you with broad and specific knowledge alike to help you build a successful grocery ecommerce team. It was inspired by a Webinar we hosted a few years ago with two ecommerce experts, Grupo Día’s Ecommerce Manager Fernanda Onzari, and Fullcommerce Brandlive’s CEO and Co-Founder, Mariano Oriolazabal. 

The parts of the series are as follows:

  • Part 1 (the one you’re currently reading) focuses on foundational considerations that affect team building;
  • Part 2 highlights dependencies and options of team within the company;
  • Part 3 deep dives into team and sub-team structure. 

Without further ado, let’s analyze three considerations that can make or break your team building: C-level support, CAPEX / OPEX models and whether to train or to hire. 

C-level alignment and commitment to digitally transform the company

First, you must start with facing your company’s reality. Here are some questions that will shed some light on your grocery company’s stance on digital transformation:

  • Does your grocery company have the certainty that ecommerce will continue to grow in the food and retail industry, becoming the main way of purchase for your region’s current and potential customers? 
  • Does it consider that barriers between “online” and “offline” channels have long disappeared? Do your customers think of your company as one brand and expect to be given value in any interaction they have with the chain, no matter the point of contact / point of purchase? 
  • Do you use technology as a competitive advantage for your company, and try to apply customer-driven and data-driven processes to your whole business? 

If the answer is “YES” to any of these questions, you most probably have a C-level alignment on your company’s digital transformation. But if you answered “NO” to all of the above, the road will undoubtedly be tougher.

The pessimistic scenario

Indeed, ecommerce penetration worldwide in the food sector still represents just a tiny 4% according to Statista, whereas ecommerce as a whole is about 20% according to eMarketer — and this is after the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to start buying groceries online. All in all, this status quo implies not many companies have gained the conviction that a digital transformation is worth it. Plenty see an ecommerce website as something they must have because “everyone else has it”, without really understanding its context, value or effects. 

What does this mean in terms of team building? It means that the C-level will give little to no investment and have no patience with the digital transformation process, leaving you short of options in your team building. Therefore, bringing to life an end-to-end ecommerce strategy will take even more investment and resources — monetary, human, technological — and years of hard work in order to come alive. The harsh truth is that, without C-level support, you will probably fail before you even start. 

As the first part of a decision tree, this is a simple “YES” or “NO” question on C-level alignment. If the unfortunate answer is “NO”, my recommendation is to go back and try harder by giving the decision-makers more data and better arguments, examples of success stories and planning, in order to start (or drastically improve) your ecommerce operation.

CAPEX vs. OPEX

Assuming you have the green light from the top level, the company should still evaluate two ways to go about this ecommerce investment, which will also impact the team building approach. These are the CAPEX (i.e. capital expenditure) and OPEX (i.e. operating expenses) models. 

CAPEX

On the one hand, in a CAPEX model, your company will be willing to invest in bigger teams and a bigger general structure, granting you more resources to see projects through. 

This type of approach is great for fast growth, but brings a lot more risk and requires a lot of planning. It also requires a business plan and digital roadmap that can effectively carry out that growth.  

OPEX

On the other hand, the OPEX approach generally starts with smaller teams (or even no team at all in case of fullcommerce services), relying on SaaS technology services that can automate and lower the collaborator’s efforts. 

This model will entail third-party services that can up-scale or down-scale depending on demand, and that can start with fullcommerce services (complete management of all ecommerce tasks, from managing the site, the marketing and commercial strategy, to handling operations and logistics), or drill down to specific needs. The advantage this strategy has is that you lower the company’s risk of investing a high amount on these projects. The downside is that you will eventually lose speed and control of the team. 

Understanding the organizational structure

Assuming you have already selected an organizational structure, now it’s time to understand the roles, responsibilities and focus of those members. 

The 100% of one, or the 20% of five

Having many team members with a small / part-time focus on the digital area, or having the full focus of one person, even if it will mean a much smaller team, is a decision you will have to make as a digital leader. 

Generally, businesses start their first steps in ecommerce by giving double roles to one single person. Their new job description often goes like “besides your usual responsibilities, now you will have to manage the website”. This type of approach is, of course, cheap, but will probably lead to inefficacy and overall bad customer experience, since the energy, focus and time of the team member will drop drastically. People often work best when they have clear goals, clear indicators and few but deep and consistent tasks. 

Of course, some part-time tasks are less disruptive than others. For example, relying on the SAC team to absorb some core ecommerce operational tasks, like customer support, or even pre-sales support (since telesales and customer support through other channels are somewhat similar) could be a good way to accelerate the ecommerce. In the long term, it could even lead to a unified approach to SAC. 

When it comes to other areas, in which some game rules change drastically depending on the medium, it would be extremely risky to rely on a Marketing team to do Digital Marketing, assuming of course they are not properly trained and skilled. For some of those cases, outsourcing a digital marketing specialist would be a middle ground until the operation grows enough to justify having an in-house specialist. 

No matter the way work is divided between the grocery management team, one of the most important things is to have a clear understanding of each collaborator’s role in the team, their goals and how they will measure their success or not. Having a data-driven, KPI-driven team will allow you to be very efficient and manage large volumes of sales with rather small teams.

Taking all of this into consideration, my piece of advice is: go with a full focus approach, even if that means having a small team in the short term. 

To train or to hire, that is the question 

One of the key qualities of any grocery ecommerce team member is that they are very specialized in what they do. This means that, through academic and empiric training (or both), they have understood the mix of art and science that is digital commerce in the food business. Unsurprisingly, none of that is easy, but there are two ways to go about getting the right minds inside a new operation. 

You can get “offline” employees, with a lot of retail knowledge, and convert them through courses, programs and academic scholarships into the world of digital commerce. It’s cheaper, but it takes more time than you might have at your disposal for immediate results. 

You can obtain highly experienced employees from another company, region or industry. These are very expensive, but usually offer fast responses. They could be useful in certain key roles, but you would probably need to give them freedom to change the company’s status quo, therefore losing a bit of ownership over the digital transformation process. 

Start from the beginning

The considerations above might seem trivial to you, but these are significant factors affecting both your future ecommerce team and, ultimately, the operation you are setting up right from the get-go. Considering grocery retail is an incredibly difficult sector, you need to understand the scenario you are in in its basic form and only then work out the particularities. 

A healthy and strong foundation will support your ecommerce business far better than a shaky one. Once you have figured out the initial phases, stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3 to get down to the nitty gritty.

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