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Five Skills You Need on Your Internet Retailing Team

A group of Internet retailers and their customers reveal what members of a great ecommerce site need – and what skills are overrated. By Jimmy Guterman

What skills does an Internet retailer need on staff? Unless you’re running a particularly large Internet retailer, there’s a good chance you don’t have too many specialists on your staff. The same person who updates the SKU list in your database may well be the person who assembles the packages and also the person who answers customer support calls. Everyone does a little of everything. Your business may not be able to afford full-time specialists, but your business does need people with specific skills. We spoke to Internet retailers and their customers, and from those interviews we’re drawing the five skills every Internet retailing team needs. We were surprised to discover that these are not so much work skills as they are life skills:

  1. Technical skills are important – but they’re the most easily learned.


    Every Internet retailer has systems its employees must master, ranging from the upload tool for an Amazon store to a full-fledged enterprise order management system. Some of the tools Internet retailers use are quite common; others are more specialized. But what we heard most of all was not to focus on technical skills unless the position is an explicitly technical one. Basic technology competence is important, but all the retailers we spoke to said that focusing on technical skills when filling non-technical positions can be a distraction.
  2. A savvy Internet retailer needs to have a high tolerance for uncertainty.


    While some situations are seasonal or predictable – you know if you’re a flower or chocolate purveyor that the weeks before Valentine’s Day will be busy – you never know when fluke event will make a particular item or family of items catch fire. You never know how individuals will use your site until you test it, and even then you are likely to be surprised by the paths customers take to get their work done. The way to compensate for this is to test regularly, and do so on all your platforms: what’s right for your eBay store might not work on your website or your store’s mobile incarnation.
  3. You may understand your business, but that doesn’t mean you understand business.


    Many Internet retailers are in their business because their passion went from hobby to career. Indeed, there are plenty of sites that help individual purveyors make that jump. But just because you have a gift and understand your industry doesn’t mean you know how to manage business money. You don’t need an MBA, you might not even need to learn QuickBooks, but even the most homegrown retailers need to know the basics. For example, when you’re deciding how you want to allow customers to pay, you need to know the differences in what payment vendors like PayPal, Google, eBay, credit cards, Amazon, and Square take from each transaction. You may want to give away a bigger cut for a larger market or easier stock management, but you need to know what your options are before you can make a good decision.
  4. No matter how important you think communication is, it’s more important than that.


    Ecommerce customer interactions happen quickly: a click on a website, an URL shared via a chat window, an email assuring a customer that her order has shipped. Speedy communications can be truncated, incomplete, or misleading. Especially since so much communication between Internet retailer and customer is in email or other online forums, where it’s easy to lose the nuance you get in voice communications, you need people on your team who are precise and clear. A direct answer is a money-saver, too: no ambiguity means you gave the customer the right information the first time and didn’t have to duplicate any effort.
  5. People who can think like customers are the best at serving customers.


    Whether in marketing, purchasing, design, or service, you need staffers who understand the customer’s needs. Online stores built to make things easy for staff don’t work as well as those intended to make things easy for customers. Whenever you’re changing a process or a feature, ask yourself: Will this improve your customer’s experience?
Do you have tips for what skills Internet retailers need to have? Let us know.

Steve Madden Reshapes Its Website – and Its Web Team

In early 2009, shoes and accessory retailer Steve Madden noticed that traffic on its mobile website was taking off and it decided to invest in the mobile side. In keeping with the five skills, here’s what the company’s ecommerce staff did:

It worked with people who knew the business. Steve Madden had a small web team (14 at the time, with no mobile experts), so the team worked with outsiders who knew mobile well to get the new site up quickly and in the right format (as a website rather than an app).

Noting how important communication with customers is, the company integrated social media (particularly Facebook “Like” functionality) through the mobile site, making it quick and easy to learn what worked and what didn’t.

Thinking like customers, Steve Madden realized that customers seeing product images on mobile devices needed them in a different shape than they did viewing the site on a PC, so the company commissioned new shots so the products would render well.

About the author

Jimmy Guterman is founder of The Vineyard Group, an editorial consultancy.

Jimmy Guterman

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of FedEx.