Shopping for the right people

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The Independent Online
Does retailing need a unique talent - the kind that Gordon Selfridge, the Sainsbury family or the Marks and Sieffs of M&S brought to their businesses so effectively? In fact, although retailing today is notoriously tough, many of the major players are badly in need of flair, with the result that the field is wide open - at all levels - for anyone who's got it and is prepared to flaunt it.

Large-scale retailing now offers more career paths than ever for those who are adaptable and ambitious and who want to develop their talents and skills. Today's aspiring food-store manager, for example, is no longer expected to know anything about cutting up sides of bacon or packing pulses. Rather, the role is all about space management, engendering teamwork, keeping a sharp eye on costs - particularly wages - being attentive to customers and administrative detail.

Modern retailing - at senior management level - is about knowing your buyers. Archie Norman and Allan Leighton scored at ASDA by doing just this. They revived a large business close to bankruptcy through building a new sense of purpose and affiliation, a real buzz, plus a low price offer. Tesco's Terry Leahy also owes his success to listening to and learning from staff and customers. Sainsbury's Dino Adriano recently spent 24 hours working at a branch for a BBC-TV programme and seemed surprised how much can be learned from customers and staff.

In fact, at the top end, retailing urgently needs drive, direction and leadership. Indeed, it is currently facing a number of problems such as the Competition Commission's investigation, the increasing intensity of competition and the downward trend in average net margin and return on capital employed. If there are any potential retail stars out there, the message is that now is the time for some self-promotion.

Retailers like Tesco, Dollond & Aitchison, the Outdoor Group and Molton Brown Cosmetics look for all levels and all ages of staff, particularly school-leavers at GCSE level - to whom they offer structured training programmes and opportunities to move into buying, personnel, accounting or IT. Most large retailers also offer graduate training programmes and career paths, and rewards are generally comparable with most professions. It's a sign of the popularity of retailing today that leading firms' graduate training schemes attract thousands of applicants for a hundred or fewer places.

Retailing is particularly in need of financial minds. Consider how important financial services have become to M&S, following their introduction by former deputy chairman Keith Oates. Retailing also relies on some of the most sophisticated information technology, buying knowledge, human resources management and skills in store layout, space management and visual impact.

There is, of course, another side to retailing. Many are attracted to the idea of starting and running their own shop, or wine bar or other retail enterprise. Despite the demise of corner grocers, greengrocers, fishmongers and clothing and footwear shops, these retail hopefuls see real scope at a time of all too similar supermarket ranges and lack of personal service.

Be warned, however. Specialise. Look hard for the right location. Small shops in particular have a tendency not to last long. Study why they failed. Don't be tempted to start a delicatessen or an arts and crafts shop because that's always been a dream. Make sure there's a gap and potential before you invest.

If, after exploring these issues, you are sure that you don't want to be desk-bound, that you relish customer contact and early responsibility for several hundred thousand pounds of business each week, it could be the career for you.