Internet retailing is a big business, in fact it's more popular in the UK than in other European countries and the USA. With online shoppers spending millions each year, discover how to forge a career in online retail

What is online retail?

Also known etailing, online retailing is defined as 'commercial transactions conducted electronically on the internet'. It is a dynamic, fast-paced environment, where innovation is critical for businesses that want to stay ahead of the competition.

Those working in online retail focus on the user experience and on procuring, displaying, supplying and delivering products as quickly as possible to satisfy customer demands.

Most high street companies have an online presence, and these are known as brick-and-click companies as they sell products from physical stores as well as online. Reflecting the fact that online shopping is such a big business, other companies are pure-click - online-only organisations that don't have bricks-and-mortar-stores. Instead they operate solely via the internet.

In November 2023 the value of internet retail sales in Great Britain reached over £3.1billion. This area of retail is full of opportunity for ambitious graduates particularly as online retail blends both digital and retail disciplines.

Who are the biggest online retailers?

Well known brick-and-click retailers include:

  • Argos
  • Asda
  • Boots
  • Clarks
  • Currys PC World
  • Holland and Barrett
  • John Lewis
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Morrisons
  • New Look
  • Next
  • River Island
  • Sainsbury's
  • Schuh
  • Specsavers
  • Superdrug
  • Tesco
  • Waitrose
  • Waterstones
  • Zara.

Top online-only retailers include:

  • Amazon
  • ASOS
  • Boohoo
  • Ebay
  • Etsy
  • Farfetch
  • Feel Unique
  • Firebox
  • Gymshark
  • Littlewoods
  • Missguided
  • Moonpig
  • Nasty Gal
  • Net-a-Porter
  • Ocado
  • Photobox
  • PrettyLittleThing
  • Very
  • Watch Shop.

What areas of online retail can I work in?

The ecommerce industry is built up of four camps, those who:

  • create/build the website
  • decide what is featured on the site
  • run the site on a day-to-day basis
  • deliver ordered goods.

If you're interested in the technology side of ecommerce you could contribute to building the website as a web developerweb designerUX researcher or UX designer.

If your interest lies more on the retail side of things you could have a direct influence on what is sold on the website by working as a retail buyer or retail merchandiser. In these roles you'll predict buying trends, identify what will sell and ensure that the website is stocked with the right quantity of products, at the right quality, at the right price and at the right time. Read up on how to get into buying and merchandising. Customer service managers are also needed to ensure consumers get the product and service the deserve.

To entice customers to shop with the brand and to keep the customer-facing aspects of the website running day-to-day, online retailers need digital copywriters, editors and writers who can create engaging content and write accurate product descriptions. Marketing professionals and social media managers are also needed to promote the company and produce enticing email newsletters. SEO specialists are essential to increasing the visibility of the site in search engines and its number of visitors.

The growth in online shopping means that more and more people are submitting their personal details to websites, and it is the responsibility of retail organisations to ensure that this data is safe from attack. Therefore, there are increasing opportunities for cyber security analysts/information security specialists.

Warehouse managers play a key role in making sure that customer orders are processed correctly but it's the job of logistics and distribution managers to ensure that customer orders are delivered in a timely and cost-effective manner. Discover why you should consider a career in logistics and supply chain management.

What qualifications and skills do I need?

Some employers look for candidates with a related undergraduate degree, for example in computer science, buying, merchandising, journalism, marketing, retail or logistics and supply chain management. However, some retailers accept graduates of any degree discipline. A 2:1 or above is preferred, but 2:2s are also widely accepted in the sector. Check entry requirements with individual employers before applying.

If you have an unrelated undergraduate degree you could always consider a Masters. Search postgraduate courses.

As well as transferrable skills you'll also need a specific set of competencies. Advanced technical knowledge isn't necessary for all e-commerce jobs but you will need to have:

  • a general understanding of online retail and how it works
  • a grasp of what drives internet traffic and knowledge of SEO
  • commercial awareness and business sense
  • knowledge of, and the ability to adapt to, new technologies
  • IT/computer skills. Knowledge of software development, web development and web design will be particularly useful
  • creative flair (for those working in web design, content creation and marketing)
  • numerical and analytical skills (for those working in UX, SEO, buying, merchandising and logistics)
  • customer service skills.

Do I need work experience?

While work experience isn't essential it does demonstrate proactivity and real experience of a commercial environment.

Any experience is valuable, but where possible try to gain relevant work placements. For example, working as a sales assistant in a high street store provides invaluable, general experience of the retail industry. You'll experience customer and company expectations and pick up transferrable skills such as customer service, communication, teamwork and trend spotting.

If you're struggling to find placements or part-time work in this capacity consider volunteering in a high street charity shop. You'll gain knowledge and experience while doing good.

Internships in IT departments or experience of coding will be useful for aspiring web developers/designers; while a stint as an editorial assistant within a content team or time spent writing for your student newspaper will prove beneficial for writers and editors.

Any experience of building or contributing to the running of a website will also be useful, so consider starting your own blog. Increasingly retailers, especially fashion companies, are using video technology to advertise their products. Familiarity with filming equipment, knowledge of video editing software and an understanding of how to upload videos to the web may give you an edge.

It's also a good idea to follow companies of interest on social media to get a feel for their brand, what they're up to and where they're headed. This sort of online activity demonstrates computer literacy, enhances professional contacts and could lead to work experience opportunities or employment.

Can I do a graduate scheme?

Ecommerce, online or digital retail graduate schemes are available with a number of big-name organisations, such as Harrods, Tesco and Vodafone.

On the majority of schemes, you'll start working on the shop floor to get a feel for the business, before moving into head office roles in online and IT departments.

On the two-year Online scheme at Tesco you'll start by spending 12 weeks in store. You'll then rotate around different online departments to gain an understanding of the businesses online functions. You could work to grow and improve the delivery service, use the latest technology to speed up how Tesco picks orders for customers, or help to offer customers a wider range of products.

On the Digital scheme at Vodafone you'll gain experience working within content design, product ownership, chatbot design and app design to name a few.

Upon completion of most graduate schemes participants are offered a full-time job. You could specialise and work in one of the roles mentioned above, or you could progress to oversee all digital operations in a role such as e-commerce operations manager.

Search for retail graduate schemes.

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