Talk about upwardly mobile jobs: Digital retail

As the recent data on Black Friday sales suggest, in-store shopping is becoming less popular as mobile phones and tablets let shoppers order stuff on the fly, in the car or anywhere they might be. It is a boon to online or multichannel retailers and to a pool of workers with the skill sets needed to make the online experience easy and comfortable enough so customers keep coming back.

"The growth rates for the jobs that are open in this industry are extremely high. It's somewhere between 20 and 50 percent," said Sucharita Mulpuru, a retail analyst at Forrester Research. "Every e-commerce company that I talk to has open positions available."

One of those companies adding jobs is online furniture and home decor retailer Wayfair , whose brands include Wayfair, Birch Lane and Joss & Main.

"We right now have over 500 open roles," said Niraj Shah, CEO of the Boston-based company. "And we are very aggressively adding to the team in all our locations."

Wayfair workers at a photo studio in Boston
Source: CNBC
Wayfair workers at a photo studio in Boston

Shah is looking to add a wide variety of roles to his current 3,250-person staff. He said he needs more data scientists, merchandisers, marketers, designers, warehouse staff and customer service reps, and they all need to have one thing in common.

"In every role we are looking for folks to have a little bit of an analytical bent, and a little bit of a way to use data to further progress what they do," he said.

The use of this data and technology is what separates digital from traditional retail. Shah puts it this way: In digital retailing, technology is not its own thing but an integral part of everything a digital retailer does, including marketing, merchandising and the company's overall operations. He said technology is core because it is used to help the merchant understand what is happening out there, what customers are looking at, what they want and what they prefer.

In traditional retailing, he points out, it is merchandising, or the promotion and presentation of goods, that carries the day.

While online or digital sales still account for less than 10 percent of overall retail sales in the U.S., they continue to grow at a rapid pace, a pace accelerating thanks to consumers shopping not only on their computers, but increasingly on mobile devices like their phones and tablets.

In 2014, the Commerce Department said online sales topped $300 billion for the first time ever, clocking in at $305 billion. Two years from now Forrester estimates e-commerce sales will hit $370 billion, growing at a faster rate than in-store sales and by 2017 accounting for more than 10 percent of total retail sales. The growth fueling what Forrester estimates will be the creation of 100,000 new digital retail jobs by 2017.

Shah acknowledges it is difficult to find talent, especially the programmers and engineers he needs. The company casts a wide net when it recruits, and develops a pipeline of prospective employees with internship programs for college and business school students. He said Wayfair pays competitively and gives all employees equity in the company to generate loyalty and reinforce its core mission of serving the customer. If the customer is well-served, Shah said, they will return to the website, buy more product, increase sales and that will be reflected in the company's stock.

"We always say we care about four main traits," he said. "We care about folks that are hardworking, bright, team oriented or collaborative, and have the ability to use analytical insights or quantitative data. Those traits are the key things that help someone succeed here."

Niraj Shah, Wayfair co-founder and CEO
Source: CNBC
Niraj Shah, Wayfair co-founder and CEO

Realizing the retail world was changing quickly, University of North Texas sensed an opportunity in 2009. That is when the Denton-based college revamped and renamed its electronic retailing program a digital retailing program. The result, since 2011 it has gone from having 11 students majoring in the program to the 140 enrolled today.

"There's a need for this kind of talent and we've become a first stop for a lot of companies when they're looking for interns or for their training classes," said Richard Last, senior director of the school's Global Digital Retailing Research Center.

Houston native Anakarin Petersen transferred because the school is the only one she found that offered an entry into a field she has wanted to pursue since she was a high school student working at a local boutique.


Wayfair worker
Source: CNBC

"I was always curious about digital and e-commerce and how everything works, because it's not just the future, it's pretty much the present right now," said the 21-year-old.

Petersen will graduate this spring and after that she will intern this summer at the e-commerce digital marketing team of Chico's FAS. This kind of placement is a bragging point for UNT, which says 82 percent of its graduates leave with an internship or a full-time job.

Last, a former retail executive who founded JCPenney.com, said the program provides students with an education in how omnichannel retailing works. They will take courses that include Web design, merchandising and programming in an environment Last said works to foster a passion for analytics, along with cooperation and risk-taking.


"In the digital world you are working side by side with marketing, merchandising, IT, e-commerce, operations, and everything happens in such real time that you really have to be able to work in a team environment," he said. "Then the other one that's important, I call it the testing mindset. The great thing about the digital world is that you can test just about everything before you roll it out to the full population of consumers. But you have to have the willingness to test and to live by the results of what the consumer has to say because in this world it's no longer the merchant dictating the assortment and dictating what things should be and what the trends should be. It's really the consumer who is in control in the digital world."

This kind of control requires top-of-the-line service. At Wayfair, which has seen sales jump more than 50 percent every quarter this year, this means personalized attention through design consultants like 22-year-old Sarah Nunberg.

"I've always been into technology. But I've always loved fashion," she said. "I knew I wanted to do something with the mix of the two."

Three months ago she joined Wayfair and now helps clients choose furniture and set up their rooms.

"I want them to feel like they are calling their personal interior designer," she said.


Wayfair warehouse worker
Source: CNBC

Wayfair's own interiors do not look like what many might imagine a furniture retailers headquarters to look like. It is whimsical in a tech-land kind of way, with open seating arrangements for impromptu brain storming sessions, a separate engineering department, and ping pong and foosball tables where its (mostly) young staff can blow off steam during the day. Shah maintains creating a "fun" atmosphere is critical to recruiting and keeping the workers that are in high demand.

Their pay too, is high, relative to what someone might earn at a brick-and-mortar store. In digital retail there are hourly jobs in fulfillment and sometimes in customer services, but according to Forrester, jobs like a Web designer or photographer will pay $45,000, a marketer can earn $70,000 and a programmer can earn more than $80,000 a year. The tech focus is helping to drive the average hourly earnings at an e-commerce company to $31.12, according to September data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost double the $17.62 paid by all retailers.

Meaning for those shopping for a job with a good salary and good growth potential, digital retail may be where they want to focus their search.