Are you being served, madam?

Careers in retailing have come a long way since Captain Peacock bestrode the shop floor.

"WHO SAYS retail isn't sexy?" Marks & Spencer's bid to entice doubting graduates has certainly caused a few sniggers among career advisers and students alike. But, agree a fast increasing number of graduates in the field, it's true.

Lucy Davis, graduate recruit at ASDA, is one such person. "My friends said: "Oh, Lucy's going to be a check-out chick." Well I've sat on the tills, I've stacked shelves, but I have a lot more responsibility now, nearly two years on, than many of my friends who went into careers in, for example, advertising or marketing," she says.

Careers adviser, Roger Wilson, explains: "Retail's a lot more exciting than people perceive, but you have to get beyond the stereotypes." If you don't want to be desk bound, if you relish customer contact and early responsibility for several hundred thousand pounds of business each week, it could be the career for you.

The reality is, however, that only a tiny percentage of graduates going straight into jobs end up in the retail sector - just one per cent from Leeds University. The reasons? Hours are long and spill over into weekends; graduates are expected to muck in on the shop floor; and starting salaries are not the most competitive.

Indeed, lazy weekends are a thing of the past for Lucy. "But it depends if you want a job or a career - you make sacrifices," she explains. With a business and marketing degree from Northumbria University, she chose ASDA above other offers and joined in 1997 on pounds 15,500. "The salary is not all that competitive, but my heart was definitely in retail. I didn't want to sit at a desk or in front of a blackboard."

Indeed, after just six months, Lucy became the only woman manager in a large store, responsible for staff who had spent more than 20 years in the business. "Sure you make mistakes, you may be resented from the start on a graduate scheme. But if you prove you can do what they do, and even more, you earn respect."

Most high-street chains - and now even parts of the banking and leisure industry - operate graduate training schemes in retail. But new recruits often see it as a stepping stone to other areas - fashion buying, personnel, PR, marketing or finance - thereby overlooking the chance to stay and manage stores. In fact, it comes as a surprise to some that the larger supermarket chains - frequently judged the most naff part of an industry that suffers from an image problem - can offer graduates the most in terms of modern management techniques and a fast moving competitive business experience.

Retail, however, is not to everyone's taste. "It can feel a bit like school, what with the carrot-and-stick style of management and hierarchical structure," warns Anne Marie Martin, careers adviser at the University of London. Besides being a people person, you must buy wholesale into the company culture and be willing to sacrifice cynicism, even individuality, on the altar of your career. Certainly, the notion of being nominated "employee of the month" or having your pay docked for lateness is enough to send some graduates screaming for cover in a nervous sweat.

In terms of skills, ASDA graduate resource manager Andrea Vowels echoes most people in her position when she speaks of wanting "really strong, vibrant and sparky people" rather than introverted intellectual types.

It's a belief wholeheartedly endorsed by Debbie Osborne, who recruits graduates at John Lewis. "Interpersonal skills are crucial. You've got to be both a team player and a potential leader." Look around the department stores before you apply, she advises, and understand the business from a customer point of view.

Contact with the public is exactly what James Elliott, graduate recruit at John Lewis, relishes. After joining in 1997 on pounds 16,000, he's now department manager at the High Wycombe branch, and customers who filter through to his office are - he says diplomatically - "often the most challenging to deal with".

"You have to be creative, use all your negotiating skills and think on your feet," he says. Armed with a politics degree from Hull University, he admits a life-long fascination with shops, and a desire to work for a solid, prestigious brand. "This sounds really cheesy but I leave work every day wanting to come back. There are real rewards in retail that people don't know about."

Employers aren't looking for a specific degree, but you should have some experience of shop work. Also be prepared to demonstrate proof of teamwork, leadership and enthusiasm; "someone who's been on the Ents Committee at university, for instance," says ASDA's Andrea Vowels. If successful, brace yourself for a stint on the shop floor, supplemented by courses in management, commerce, finance and basic marketing. If you're daunted by managing staff while still wet behind the ears, this may not be for you: responsibility comes early in this sector.

After anything from six months to three years you may find yourself arriving at a crossroads; go down the head office route and you could hop across to marketing or buying; stay with store management and you could find yourself in charge of several million pounds worth of business and a staff of hundreds.

Retail is one of the first casualties of recession and dire high-street sales have taken their toll. But many large stores remain firmly committed to hiring suitable graduates destined for the fast track to senior management.

"Ultimately, you really have to love the company and product to succeed, and you must fit smoothly into the culture. It's more crucial in this industry than any other," remarks careers adviser Anne Marie Martin.

Do your homework in choosing your company, get your hands dirty and look for ways to shine, advises Lucy at ASDA. "It's not an easy desk job, but if at the end of the day you can't buzz about it, what's the point of doing it?"

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