Best Buy snags Starbucks tech guru

March 9, 2012: 8:00 AM ET

The man behind popular innovations at Starbucks, like free WiFi and payment via smartphone, is being tapped to help the electronics retailer.

stephen_gillettFORTUNE -- Stephen Gillett, the Starbucks chief information officer who revamped the retailer's technological approach to selling coffee, is joining electronics giant Best Buy. The 36-year-old former college football player is charged with no small task: helping Best Buy go up against Amazon while continuing to sell products in brick-and-mortar stores.

Gillett joins Best Buy (BBY) Monday as president of the company's digital business, including its online stores, as well as replicating the information-systems responsibilities he held at Starbucks (SBUX). At the Seattle coffee company Gillett was instrumental in offering free wireless Internet service to customers as well as allowing payment by smartphones. The moves were credited with being a part of the rejuvenation of the customer experience at Starbucks under CEO Howard Schultz. In recognition of his efforts, Fortune named Gillett to its list of 40 top executives under age 40 in 2010.

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Best Buy's challenge is to stave off competition from online-only retailers, notably Amazon (AMZN). The Minneapolis-based company's e-commerce site has been slow to keep up with Amazon's innovation as it has sought to protect its big-box franchise. Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn said Best Buy's success lies in embracing both sales formats. He has sought to add more choices on Bestbuy.com and to reduce the overall square footage of Best Buy's stores. "My passionate belief is that neither physical nor digital will be enough," he said Thursday. He also named Gillett to head digital strategy and marketing.

Gillett said Best Buy will marry digital and physical retailing in a "harmonious way" that will redefine the gold standard for both formats. "Kudos to Amazon for they've done," said Gillett, who may be the only top Fortune 500 executive to brag about being a "guild master" in Activision Blizzard's (ATVI) World of Warcraft online video game. "But if a coffee company can go through a technical renaissance, Best Buy can accomplish this e-commerce and physical combination."

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Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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