5 E-Commerce Skills That Students Need

E-commerce skills are in demand. In the third quarter of 2019, U.S. retail e-commerce sales rose an estimated 5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Census Bureau.

E-commerce is, of course, the act of buying or selling goods over the web, and there are plenty of key skills you need to make that process go smoothly from a production standpoint. Fortunately, many schools (such as the University of Pittsburgh and DePaul University in Chicago) now offer courses in e-commerce. These skills include mobile e-commerce, customer relationship management, and SEO.

With all that in mind, here are five skills that students need to pursue a career in this burgeoning segment.

User Experience (UX)

One skill that might potentially be overlooked is user experience (UX), according to Dr. Dennis Galletta, a professor of business administration and director of the doctoral program in the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s just not always top-of-mind as a required skill at companies because “they want to get the job out,” he said.

But when shoppers are looking for a particular item, and their search fails for some reason, fixing it is often a problem for the user experience (UX) professionals.

“Sometimes you’re trying to find it and the search function doesn’t work well,” Galletta said. “It happens commonly, especially when developers don’t test the site. In the future, organizations will realize that people need to test these things and understand when people are having trouble and [decide] what to do about it.”

Testing mock e-commerce sites is part of the learning process. If students are making their test website public, they need to indicate that it’s for learning purposes only, noted Dr. Xiaowen Fang, a professor in the School of Computing at DePaul University. He recalled an incident when shoppers tried to place orders on a publicly available student site, then threatened to sue when they found out the site was fake and feared their credit card information had been compromised (Fang and his students assured the shoppers that their data was secure).

These sites are usually pulled down following the end of a school year, according to Fang. “We don’t want the public to actually start to put in the sensitive information and then get freaked out,” he said.

The key goal for UX professionals is to make an e-commerce site or shopping app easy to use. “That’s the bottom line,” Fang said.

Easy-to-use means both desktop and mobile versions of the website must offer an optimized experience. There should be as little friction as possible when it comes to finding and purchasing an item; otherwise, users will be inclined to abandon their virtual shopping carts. In addition to mastering tools such as the Adobe Creative Suite, students will often learn tricks of the trade, such as iterative testing and focus groups.

Coding Skills

Coding skills are an important aspect of e-commerce that students need to learn, particularly with building mobile apps. Often-used programming languages in an e-commerce context include JavaScript, PhP, and Python.

“You need to do not necessarily traditional programming, but you need to have a good understanding of how to develop the application, how to program the application, and how to work with a team,” Fang said.

Along with coding, application designers also need to learn to develop prototype apps quickly to meet production deadlines (and leave time for user feedback). Mobile e-commerce apps are often subjected to this kind of considerable time pressure. In the real world, the ramp-up to the holidays often marks the “maximum stress” on companies and development teams trying to get their websites’ shopping functionality perfected.

“Students need to learn both the development process (meaning how to assemble a team and going through different stages of the development, etc.) as well as programming skills,” Fang said. Learning how to code and build e-commerce sites is not as challenging as publishing the site, he added.

E-Commerce Analytics and SEO

A key skill that students will need to learn is search engine optimization (SEO). They must know how to use keywords to boost the search ranking of an e-commerce site.

Students must learn the importance of keywords and how they’re critical to online shoppers finding the products they’re looking for. “You need to have keywords,” Galletta said.

Knowledge of analytics is also important, because that provides companies with information on how customers are reaching the site and what they’re clicking on, Galletta noted. If you know whether those customers are arriving via organic search (i.e., typing terms into Google) or via another site (such as a blog), that insight can allow you to adjust the site and its copy accordingly.  

In addition, clickstream analysis is a key skill that e-commerce professionals should know. This type of analysis involves collecting and analyzing data on user behavior as they navigate a site. If you’re not getting the clicks, the analytics will provide the insight that could fix the problem.

Zack Duncan, an entrepreneur in residence at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of digital advertising company Root and Branch Group, helps teach students to analyze data in order to troubleshoot technical problems, such as slow loading or problematic credit-card transactions. Duncan and the students study if there is a drop-off in customer conversion rates.

“We saw that, even though traffic was staying consistent, bounce rate was going up and conversion rate was going way down,” Duncan said about one case. “It was because the site was getting kind of bogged down and buggy and people were leaving the checkout experience and the client was missing out on business.”

If you can master troubleshooting, you can become an extremely valuable e-commerce player, in other words.  

Cybersecurity Training

Students must study how e-commerce sites get breached, and that means more than just the technical aspects of how sites are penetrated and criminals initiate phishing attacks. These skills also involve learning the patterns and behavior of security breaches, according to Galletta.

“It’s not just a technical issue; it’s also a behavioral issue,” Galletta said. Students need to learn how to “harden databases and encryption and make sure you don’t store sensitive information in readable text form,” he advised. Students should also learn how to incorporate biometrics and multifactor authentication into commerce sites (this may include fingerprint swiping).

Fang added that security and privacy regulations are an essential part of e-commerce studies for students: “We also teach students to understand government regulations.”

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Software

Students must learn how to manage customer contact information on e-commerce sites and how to use customer relationship management (CRM) software. These platforms help track customer leads and monitor metrics on sales patterns. Common CRM software includes Salesforce CRM and Zoho CRM.

Along with CRM, students also learn supply chain management (SCM) at DePaul University. “Systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), SCM, and CRM are critical in support of large business operations,” Fang said.