Fast Track: Lords of the aisles

Filling your supermarket trolley is all too easy, but the logistics of filling the shelves has become a very demanding science, writes Meg Carter
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As the largest British retailers set their sights on the international marketplace, opportunities for graduates are expanding farther afield. And nowhere more so than in the area of logistics: the art of moving products from A to B.

It may not sound it, but logistics is a dynamic retail activity fuelled by technology enabling the accurate logging of stock, tracking of sales and efficient replenishment of supermarket shelves.

"Logistics" covers a broad range of distribution activities, such as liaising with product suppliers and co-ordinating the delivery of goods to a retailer's storage centres. It also covers managing stock before it is distributed to branches, co-ordinating the division, allocation and delivery of stock to branches and monitoring sales to start the whole process from scratch once again.

This process has been evolved considerably with the development of computer networks linking cash tills to warehouses, ensuring new goods are ordered at the time they are sold. Technological change has also been fuelled by increased pressures on retailers' costs.

Today, managers are working to maximise the efficiency of distribution systems and networks while minimising costs.

"Logistics is about far more than understanding distribution computer systems or, for that matter, co-ordinating fleets of lorries," says Asda's human resources manager for logistics, Carol-Ann Massie. "It's also about people management and strategic planning - it's a core part of every retailer's supply chain."

Asda recruits l20 graduates each year on to its three-year retail training scheme; around seven of these will be taken on to work in logistics which, although administered centrally, is run as a separate training scheme. Starting salaries are from pounds 16,000. Asda employs between 6,000 and 6,500 in logistics.

Graduates taken into logistics typically gain experience through three placements: in supply, line management and special projects. Supply analysts liaise with storage depots, distribution handlers and product buyers from head office. Line managers work within distribution centres, managing drivers, stackers and loaders. Project work can range from co-ordinating new distribution centres to work with national transport teams.

"We are looking for relevant experience where appropriate, good communication skills with people at all levels of an organisation, and an outgoing nature," Carol-Ann Massie says.

After two years' training, graduates will move into distribution, supply or to head office logistics departments such as transport, IT, supply planning and supply forecasting, where analysts plot future shopping trends.

Each of the UK's major retail chains runs a graduate recruitment and training scheme. Most divide recruits into tomorrow's store managers and specialists who are taken into centrally-based departments such as marketing, finance, product development and logistics.

Sainsbury's, for example, takes on between 500 and 600 graduates a year on to three schemes: management training, which covers store management and specialist functions such as IT and marketing, and two business placement initiatives, one targeting those on sandwich degrees, the other for final- year students.

Only four or five people are taken on in distribution and logistics each year, says resourcing manager Jay Snaith. Starting salaries are just under pounds 17,000. "We run an 18-month programme covering core areas from logistics planning to buying support depot management - and liaison between logistics and distribution departments to ensure stores are not flooded with products."

Although Sainsbury's regularly recruits from four universities running distribution and logistics degrees - Aston, Huddersfield, Loughborough and London Guildhall - a specialist degree is not essential, he says.

The skills needed to work in logistics remain pretty constant, Mr Snaith adds. "But the demands placed on the distribution team have increased significantly in recent years with the growth of 24-hour trading, and are likely to grow further as business expands abroad."

At rival retailer Tesco, distribution activity is focused on its 600 UK stores. The company has 13 account depots, employing 7,000 staff; a further seven depots are run contracted-out.

"We have two sides to our distribution activities: managing distribution depots and logistical support," explains Ian Jefcoate, Tesco's head of human resources operations distribution. The latter role requires good communications and people management skills, an understanding of IT for stock control and clear customer focus. Logistics support involves trends planning and analysis.

Logistics sits within Tesco's umbrella graduate scheme, which takes on around 130 each year and lasts between 18 months and two years. Starting salaries are pounds 16,500.

Successful applicants must be prepared to be flexible and work in different parts of the country. Tesco employs 155,000 people in the UK and around 15,000 more in central Europe, where it is developing the first stage of an international development strategy.

The rapid expansion of leading multiples in recent years has led to a broadening of the range of jobs on offer to graduates, including increased opportunities to work abroad.

"There are still many people who think distribution equals lorries, petrol fumes and moving boxes around a dirty warehouse," Mr Jefcoate adds. "In fact, distribution has changed significantly in the past 15 years. Today it is an extremely sophisticated business and core part of every retailer's 'buy it, move it, sell it' distribution chain."