Students at the Uni-versity of Wisconsin at Madison last fall carried out two research projects for The Swiss Colony Inc., an online and catalog retailer. They researched how the retailer could better reach black and Hispanic consumers with its cheese and food gift items, and whether it could overcome the logistical challenges of selling wine.
The students' work was no mere classroom exercise. Swiss Colony is using the students' statistical analysis of the behavior of non-white shoppers to shape marketing efforts, while the data about wine-shipment laws has given the retailer a greater appreciation of how hard it would be to enter that business. "Selling alcohol across state lines is very tricky," says Hans Bernet, the retailer's manager of e-commerce development. "We now realize it's even more difficult than we thought."
Swiss Colony has worked with the University of Wisconsin for several years, and realizes tangible benefits from the work the students do. "The advantage of this is we can carve out particular areas we don't have time to research ourselves," Bernet says. At the same time, students get real-world experience in the growing arena of online retailing.
Despite the apparent benefits to both school and retailer, it appears such partnerships are not common. In fact, fewer colleges and universities are teaching courses specifically about e-commerce, which means online retailers and technology vendors in the field are not seeing many students coming out of school with credits in directly relevant courses.
"I've been surprised to find that the e-commerce programs and courses seem to be in their infancy," says Eileen Gates, recruitment manager for ChannelAdvisor Corp., which sells e-commerce technology and services that help retailers sell through multiple online channels. "I'd be thrilled to see more e-commerce coursework show up in the resumes that cross my desk."
That doesn't seem likely to happen soon, although there are some initiatives by retailers or their organizations to encourage more students to learn e-commerce by the book.
For now, the trend is running against e-commerce courses and programs. Despite the fact that online retail grew faster than store sales throughout the past decade, the number of programs dedicated to training college students about the ins and outs of e-commerce has dropped 48% since the 2004-2005 school year, according to survey results from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
The accreditation group says colleges and universities offered 39 e-business and e-commerce programs in the 2008-2009 school year, down from 75 programs offered in 2004-2005. The number of schools offering dedicated programs declined to 34 in 2008-2009, down 44% from 61 in 2004-2005. The group surveys approximately 500 schools.
One reason for the decline is the hangover from the collapse of Wall Street's investment bubble in Internet companies. Many schools that started programs when money was pouring into Internet startups backed off after reality set in. "What happened in the bubble, there was a lot of interest, but demand dried up," says Kirthi Kalyanam, the Internet retailing faculty director at Santa Clara University, which is in Silicon Valley and has offered e-commerce education since 1999.
But the other factor experts point to is a product of e-commerce becoming a bigger part of businesses of all kinds in the past decade. As a result, many universities are weaving e-commerce instruction into many courses and departments, instead of creating dedicated, stand-alone programs.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for instance, students can learn about online retailing in a variety of business, computer science, and industrial and systems engineering courses, says Raj Veeramani, a business and engineering professor who serves as executive director of the university's E-Business Consortium, a collaborative effort between the university and e-commerce companies.
Integrating e-commerce instruction broadly in these departments reflects the realities of the business world, Veeramani says. "We sprinkle it everywhere because e-commerce touches so many areas of business."
University of Wisconsin-Madison students seriously interested in e-commerce careers have no dedicated degree program to tackle, but generally do take at least two higher-level courses that focus on the field, Veeramani says. One is called E-Business: Technology, Strategies and Applications, while the other is E-Business Transformation: Design, Analysis and Justification. Both are offered once a year.
It was in the first class, which is intended for graduate students and seniors, that students did the Swiss Colony research. "It provides an overview of technology used in e-commerce and what it means for business to embrace e-commerce," Veeramani says. The class covers topics such as managing relationships with online consumers and using web technology to deal with suppliers.
Students interested in e-commerce also can receive instruction from other departments at the university, including web design education from library and information systems professors, or copyright education from journalism and mass communications teachers, he says. "No single class can teach them everything in terms of e-commerce," Veeramani says.
There are other universities offering dedicated e-retail courses. At the University of North Texas, located near Dallas, the School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management offers a bachelor's degree in E-Merchandising, an 8-year-old program that includes about 25 students at any one time, says Tammy Kinley, associate professor and merchandising chair. Students start off with "Intro to E-Merchandising."
Later comes a junior-level class called "Consumer Engagement in Digital Channels," which focuses on the uses of social media and consumer reviews and ratings, she says. Students also can take a class in virtual merchandising, receive instruction in building web sites, and—through a collaboration with the journalism and business departments—take courses that cover electronic retailing, copywriting and media strategies.
At Santa Clara University, a private school, students in the retail studies program can specialize in Internet retailing, a choice that about a third of the students focused on retail make, says Kalyanam, who co-wrote the 2006 textbook "Internet Marketing and E-Commerce."
Nonetheless, such courses remain relatively rare. There are obstacles to expanding e-commerce education, including the fact that selling online is such a new field that there aren't many qualified teachers, says Kalyanam. "There is not enough supply of faculty that really knows how to do this," he says.