The big chain stores have a message for potential recruits: our business offers you a lot more than a chance to stack shelves. Roger Trapp reports
Most graduates starting a career in retail have an impression of what it's all about from either shopping or packing shelves in holidays. Admittedly, they probably know much more about what they are letting themselves in for than do their classmates opting for other routes to fame and fortune. But retailers are convinced that it is not enough.

Accordingly, earlier this month, a group of the leading companies hosted a conference in Ware, Hertfordshire, for careers advisers from higher education establishments around the country, with the object of dispelling some myths. A key part of the one-day event was the opportunity for careers advisers to discover first-hand what young managers do in their first few years in retail. They aimed to update the careers advisers on the specifics of the job, as well as demonstrating to them the broad-ranging activities that might be included - from logistics to pharmacy. At the same time, the retail companies had the chance to hear how they are perceived and to learn of student concerns.

The day was organised by Cortco, a voluntary association of leading retailers set up a few years ago to promote retail as a career by providing accurate information about it. Related to this, it also set out to act as the voice of the industry in connection with graduate recruitment and - more important, perhaps - to provide a forum in which those involved in graduate recruitment could share best practices, and to build relationships with students and those who advise them.

The associate retailers include Marks & Spencer, Boots, Safeway, John Lewis Partnership, Tesco, Kingfisher and J Sainsbury. Though normally fiercely competitive, these companies have joined together because they feel it will help to attract talented individuals with both the intellectual and personal capabilities needed to manage the modern business - and so help the whole industry prosper.

Monique Gemke, assistant to the head of recruitment for John Lewis department stores, reported that the companies had no problem with the numbers of applicants for places on their graduate training schemes; the companies just wanted to ensure they were appealing to the best available candidates.

"It seemed like a positive step forward and I think it's one that we at John Lewis would benefit from, and that other retail companies have benefited from," said Ms Gemke.

In particular, the organisation suggests that by making graduates better acquainted with what goes on once inside, the companies will minimise the risk of wasting money on expensive induction and management development programmes for those who are unsuited to the job.

Retail is commonly assumed to be about dealing with people - the customers. This is true, of course. But, as Ms Gemke points out, there is a lot more to the process. Retailers typically hand out large amounts of responsibility early on, therefore the ability to lead is crucial. Additionally, the successful recruit will need to be able to "prioritise" his or her workload and that of the team.

All this is equivalent to the role of a rising manager in most commercial enterprises - and, in retail, staff have to do all this in front of the increasingly demanding customer. Given this challenging profile and the growing competition on the high street, many students might feel there are easier - if less varied - ways of making a living. Thus it is perhaps not so surprising that leading retailers decided to collaborate on such a venture.