Women to Watch

Sarah Alter

By Published on .

You know you're good when the president of your parent company turns to the president of its subsidiary and tells him, "I don't know what to do with her, but I like her. Find something for her."

That's exactly what happened to Sarah Alter in 1998. Ms. Alter, who held the title of marketing comptroller for Staples Inc. in the U.K., had a dilemma. Her husband, Michael, was being transferred to Chicago. She didn't want to leave the company she joined in March 1997, and thanks to Larry Morse, the president of Staples's $1 billion Quill Corp. subsidiary, she didn't.

As VP of Quill.com, Ms. Alter didn't disappoint, growing the e-tail operation from 9% of Quill Corp. sales to more than 46% by yearend 2004. This year, Quill.com is expected to garner more than 50% of Quill Corp.'s overall take. In March 2004, Ms. Alter was promoted to VP-channel marketing for Quill Corp.

Ms. Alter, 40, and her team are responsible for print and online advertising in support of Quill.com, as well as the content that appears on the Web site. The group's duties also include producing the Quill print catalog.

She helped achieve this impressive growth by keeping online and offline sales under one roof, Ms. Alter says. "A lot of times, companies failed during the [Internet] boom because they treated online and offline stores as two separate channels. They saw online as somewhat of a replacement for the offline store," she says. "My main goal was how are we going to service the customer regardless of how they come to us?"

Ms. Alter doesn't make a move without consulting those customers-80%-85% of whom are women-directly via focus groups. Every change she makes on the site must pass muster with them. Likewise for changes in e-mail marketing and the company's 1,000-page print catalog. One of her recent innovations: reorder tools that make it simpler for people to manage repeat purchases. Since everything-design, production and execution-comes from the same in-house team, there's a synergy to everything the customer touches, Ms. Alter says.

"There's an opportunity to be creative when you have writers write copy for e-mail, catalog and Web site," she says. "When designers come up with a promising concept, we know it will show up in all three. We had to teach this skill set, and it's been a real cultural shift."

Ms. Alter, who has three children aged 2,5 and 7, will face new challenges this year as she adds branding duties for several of Staples's recently purchased subsidiaries such as Medical Arts Press and HMI, companies that sell office and medical supplies.

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