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E-Commerce Wars: Why Retailers Are Fighting for Seattle's Best

Staples and Others Are Lured to the Emerald City by Deep Engineering Talent

By Published on .

Staples is cultivating a startup-like culture in its Seattle development center.
Staples is cultivating a startup-like culture in its Seattle development center. Credit: Business Wire

Staples' newest office space, located in downtown Seattle, is decked out with graffiti-covered walls, large windows overlooking the Puget Sound and a ping-pong table. The spacious loft is fit for a Silicon Valley startup. And for good reason: it is home to Staples e-commerce team and is designed to lure engineers and other in-demand talent to the company.

More and more retailers are in Seattle to access the crop of engineering talent at companies like Amazon and Microsoft. The city's relatively close proximity to Silicon Valley is also a big draw. Alibaba set up shop within poaching distance of Amazon last year, as did Staples. Nordstrom, Costco and Zulily have too staked their claims in the Seattle market, which has become an alternative to the overrun and expensive San Francisco Bay Area.

Now, as more marketers move to the area -- including big tech players like Facebook, Google and Dropbox -- the competition is fierce for top-tier talent. Amazon alone hired 1,700 engineers in Seattle last year, using its team of more than 500 tech recruiters, said Albert Squiers, director of technology recruiting at Fuel Talent, a Seattle-based recruiting firm that has worked with Zulily, Nordstrom and Amazon. Amazon did not reply to a request for comment.

"The war for talent is full-on right now," said Mr. Squiers. "Companies have to be creative in attracting the right talent."

The most in-demand positions include software engineers, developers and user-experience specialists. To seduce them, companies are touting fun and rewarding work cultures, paying a premium and offering creative perks, recruiters say. Popular benefits include unlimited vacation, flexibility to work from home, pet-friendly offices, signing bonuses and other equity incentives.

"Companies are now finding that the tables have turned," said Nicole Browning of Wimmer Solutions, a technical staffing firm in Seattle. "They are now sitting in the 'interviewee' seat where they must vie for the best technical talent by offering higher pay, more flexibility and creative benefits."

Staples' Seattle e-commerce hub is decked out with a ping-pong table, graffiti-covered walls and large windows overlooking the Puget Sound.
Staples' Seattle e-commerce hub is decked out with a ping-pong table, graffiti-covered walls and large windows overlooking the Puget Sound. Credit: Business Wire

That's why Staples pulled out all the stops when it opened its Seattle office last June. "We want to stay part of the mothership," said Faisal Masud, exec VP of global e-commerce at the office-supplies company, referring to Staples' Massachusetts headquarters, "but at the same time remain a startup-like culture in Seattle." The compensation is also attractive, he added.

Like some of its competitors, Staples set up shop in Seattle in order to better access recruits. "We were trying to go where the talent was," said Mr. Masud, adding that his deep roots in the area also influenced the decision. Mr. Masud joined Staples in May 2013 from Groupon after stints at eBay and Amazon.

In such a competitive space, candidates often field multiple job offers, Mr. Masud said. But he added that he has been "pleasantly surprised" with the company's progress, which has been faster than expected. Staples' development center is staffed with roughly 80 employees -- mostly product-management teams, software engineers, quality-assurance analysts and program managers—and can house more than 100.

Among the new hires are former Amazon recruiter Nathan Thayer, who heads up the office's recruiting efforts; former Nike.com engineering director Lance Brimble, who is the director of engineering for e-commerce; and former eBay manager Ryan Bartley, who is Staples' mobile director.

As an industry, e-commerce itself is not a big draw for talent, said Mr. Squiers at Fuel Talent. Candidates are more interested in the work they would do and opportunities to really own a project. "What draws engineers are the problems, the technologies and the tasks that they're going to be doing," said Mr. Squiers.

Those are some of the reasons recruits are attracted to Seattle-based e-retailer Zulily, which was founded in 2009 and has roughly 4,000 employees, including its fulfillment centers.

Founded in 2009, Zulily is growing fast with roughly 4,000 employees.
Founded in 2009, Zulily is growing fast with roughly 4,000 employees. Credit: Courtesy Zuilily

"We have an innovative business model with a really fun environment," said Dave Cotter, director of technology and planning at Zulily, who is also an Amazon alum. "If you're looking to solve big problems, this is a pretty good place to come do that." (In Seattle, "it's incredibly difficult to get more than three degrees of separation from somebody at Amazon," he pointed out.)

Zulily focuses on mobile and leveraging data to create a more personalized shopping experience, for example, Mr. Cotter said. Employees are also encouraged to "break things" by trying new concepts on the site, he added.

Still, retailers with innovative approaches and fun work environments face stiff competition from tech companies with deep pockets. Facebook, which houses more than 500 workers in its Seattle office, announced plans last month to relocate to a space with room for as many as 2,000 employees."

Just because there's talent here, doesn't mean there's enough," said Mr. Squiers. "Come ready to fight for that talent."

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