Trading in technology: Astute business knowledge is the key to successful e-tailing

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The Independent Online

For those who dream of following in the footsteps of internet pioneers such as Amazon or Play.com, it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that prior knowledge of web-based technology is not necessarily a pre-requisite to making it big as an e-tailer or web entrepreneur.

Whether you have your own unique business idea to take to the web, or prefer to play it safe and work for a firm already established on the internet, a degree in IT or computing is not necessary.

To some, it may even be less preferable to innate business sense when it comes to understanding how e-marketing can shine in an industry such as travel or grocery retailing.

While, in the early days of the web, it was computer systems that dominated internet entrepreneurialism, today's web trader should be far more concerned with the old fashioned principles of customer service than the intricacies of next-generation technology, says Julian Bond, a start-up consultant to web businesses based in London and the south east.

He believes that while the technology behind e-tailing is now largely understood by the marketing community, it is those businesses displaying genuine consumer insight that are now set to succeed.

"Consumers don't want electronic gizmos and gadgets per se and they don't want a service that promises them the earth and then lets them down because the broadband has gone slow. In my experience, consumers look to the web for fast, efficient service, good prices and a proper redress system when things go wrong or delivery is held up. In other words, they want exactly what they would get from a good high street retailer but in double quick time. Critically, they don't want to feel that once they have used their card online, they are somehow at the mercy of the e-tailer and Royal Mail."

It's a point echoed by the John Lewis Partnership, whose John Lewis Direct (JLD) business had a turnover of £185m last year. The firm, which employs 160 staff, has a projected turnover of between £240 and £280m this year, on 50,000 different lines. Online fashion is particularly important to the operation.

While good computer skills are vital in the web arena, as is an understanding of how the "back-end" of e-tailing works, says JLD, successful job candidates - all of whom spend their initial training in-store - are not expected to be geeks or even technology graduates.

"If a graduate is coming direct from university, we look for a good degree in any subject, but we also look for extra-curricular interests and where they chose to work in their holidays," says Diana Campbell, personnel manager at JLD.

"We've taken on people with languages and European studies backgrounds, as well as people with degrees in marketing or business, and certainly do not see it as a requirement that they should all have degrees in IT or computing. We welcome people with entrepreneurial nous and with innate commercial understanding, but we are also very keen on our people having balanced lives as well as successful careers," she adds.

With e-tailing developing fast, it is little wonder that so many would-be web entrepreneurs learn all they can from an employer before setting up on their own. To JLD though, a healthy staff turnover is to be encouraged.

"Of course we lose some people; either to other firms or perhaps because they want to start their own business, but many of them come back to us in another guise later on," says Campbell, who adds that JLD staff are routinely sent abroad to study other models of e-tailing.

In terms of learning about e-marketing, the courses are plentiful. The University of Nottingham, for example, offers a BSc in e-commerce and digital business which firmly harnesses developments in computer science to the e-commerce arena.

Learning how to program in Java is a key component of the e-commerce course; which is taught jointly by the School of Computer Science and IT and the Nottingham University Business School, as is business and e-commerce system design.

The course aims to provide students with the "practical skills and knowledge needed to design, develop and build information systems using contemporary software tools... and the business knowledge needed to understand the environments in which such systems operate."

Less than a decade ago, there were just a handful of shops on the web and the technology that underpinned them was still rather shaky. Today, e-tailing and e-marketing are well-established business methods that are having a profound impact on the way everything is bought and sold.

The good news is that if you have a brilliant idea for a web-based product and service, the chances of making it work, and getting it up and running for less money, are getting better by the day.

'I FEEL AT HOME HERE'

Mark Beasley, 26, is a graduate trainee with John Lewis Direct (JLD). He has a BA in business and marketing from the University of Lancaster, and an MSc in strategic business.

"It was a priority for me to come to an online retailer because the web is such a huge growth area for all marketeers.

My first degree didn't have much of a computing or IT element, apart from the fundamentals, but as a marketeer, I feel very much at home here.

The online business is different to the stores, both in terms of its culture and the way that it does things. We have a far flatter structure here and we are able to make immediate decisions about products and marketing. The stores don't always understand how we work and don't always keep up with all that we are doing.

Taking the knowledge I have built up in JLD back to our stores would make perfect sense, but I can't say I want to go back into traditional retail at present.

My university colleagues are doing lots of different things; some of them working for far smaller companies. John Lewis has a thriving on-line business and I am very glad to be here and to be learning so much."

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