Online sales account for approximately 16% of retail spending. Find out how you can achieve an exciting career in the growing field of e-commerce

What is online retail?

Also known as e-commerce or e-tailing, 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 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.

The majority of high street stores now have an online presence and with the growth of online retailing we're seeing an emergence of pure-click companies - online only companies that don't have bricks-and-mortar-stores, instead they operate solely via the internet. While brick-and-click companies sell products from physical stores as well as online.

According to the House of Commons Library the average weekly value of internet sales in Great Britain was £1.2billion in August 2017 and online retail sales increased year-on-year by 15.6%.

E-commerce is full of opportunity for ambitious graduates, particularly as online retail blends both digital and retail disciplines. You could forge a career as a buyer or merchandiser, web developer, UX analyst, SEO specialist, web writer, online security expert or logistics manager.

Who are the biggest online retailers?

Well known brick-and-click retailers include:

  • Argos
  • Asda
  • Boots
  • Clarks
  • Debenhams
  • Holland and Barrett
  • House of Fraser
  • John Lewis
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Mothercare
  • New Look
  • Next
  • Sainsbury's
  • Schuh
  • Superdrug
  • Tesco
  • Topshop
  • Waitrose.

While top online only retailers include:

  • Amazon
  • Ao.com
  • ASOS
  • Boohoo
  • Ebay
  • Farfetch
  • Firebox
  • Getthelabel.com
  • Littlewoods
  • Missguided
  • Moonpig
  • Net-a-Porter
  • NotOnTheHighStreet.com
  • Ocado
  • Photobox
  • TheBookPeople.co.uk
  • Very
  • Watch Shop.

What areas of retail can I work in?

The online retail industry is built up of four camps:

  • those responsible for creating/building the website
  • the people who decide what is featured on the site
  • those responsible for running the site on a day-to-day basis
  • the people tasked with successfully delivering ordered goods.

If you're interested in the technology side of e-commerce you could contribute to building the website as a web developer, web designer, UX analyst 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.

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/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.

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 2:2's are also widely accepted in the sector. Check entry requirements with individual employers before applying.

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
  • commercial awareness and business sense
  • knowledge of and the ability to adapt to new technologies
  • IT/computer skills
  • 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).

Do I need work experience?

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

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

If you're struggling to find paid 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 you should consider starting your own blog.

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 even lead to employment.

Can I do a graduate scheme?

A number of retailers run graduates schemes specifically focused on e-commerce/online or technology.

Such schemes are available with Aldi, Arcadia, Dunelm, Marks & Spencer, New Look and Tesco.

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

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

To learn more about graduate programmes within the sector see retail graduate schemes.

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