Paul Onnen

In January 2000, Paul Onnen was handed the task of leading brick-and-mortar retailer Nordstrom into the world of online commerce.

Chief Technology Officer,
Age: 39
Degrees: Bachelors in mathematics and physics from St. Olaf College; Masters in computer science, University of Wisconsin
Car: Porsche Boxster
Stress reliever: Doing crossword puzzles

In January 2000, Paul Onnen was handed the task of leading brick-and-mortar retailer Nordstrom into the world of online commerce. Nordstrom began selling goods over the Internet in 1998, offering a wide selection of mens and ladies clothing, jewelry and accessories, and what the retailer says is "The Worlds Biggest Shoe Store." The site went through a major overhaul last November, with the addition of such features as live chat with customer service agents, and assisted browsing. Onnen spoke with writer Laton McCartney, a regular contributor to Interactive Week.

When we last talked, you were leading Nordstrom into the world of online sales. How has that progressed?

Very well. Our holiday sales were up over 300 percent from the previous year.

One of your major early initiatives was a drop-ship program with various shoe manufacturers. You were going to manage their inventory and sell their shoes directly, as I recall.

We now have 15 vendors that we have integrated our inventory with, and we"re sending them orders daily. That has allowed us to sell 30 million pairs of shoes to our customers.

Have there been any unexpected challenges in taking that on?

One opportunity that we had was integrating our inventory system with the vast variety of manufacturers systems. Some of our shippers, such as Cole Hahn, are large concerns, and they have very sophisticated systems. Other shoe vendors are very small. Its been very interesting integrating these vastly disparate inventory systems into our own B2B solutions.

How have you accomplished that?

We have made it very simple and flexible for them to integrate with us whether it be via [Electronic Data Interchange], [eXtensible Markup Language] or e-mail or Web-based, we supply a plethora of solutions so they can integrate in whichever way is best for them. We actually have staff that goes to the vendor and holds their hand and helps them integrate. This approach has improved the integration to the point where were able to get inventory updates form vendors as often as every 15 minutes.

You worked at some big traditional companies before here. How has that experience helped you in this job? Or has it?

I enjoy that entrepreneurial feel of, but it has benefited me in dealing with our corporate parent, Nordstrom, and integrating our system with the perpetual inventory system theyre installing down the street. Thats a long-term project. Were also integrating with our Nordstrom products group so we can do things like automated ordering. Being the smaller, more nimble company and having experience in larger companies has given me perspective on the best ways to integrate with them.