Graduates: More opportunities in store: As the scale of retailing has grown, so has the need for highly educated people, says Philip Schofield

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Napoleon called us a nation of shopkeepers. Although 200 years later, small shopkeepers are a shrinking species, one in ten Britons continues to work in what is now one of the world's most highly developed retailing industries.

Independent shopkeepers, who run every aspect of their business - buying, display, sales, bookkeeping and so on - are giving way to supermarkets and chain stores run by teams of professional managers and specialists.

As the scale and complexity of retailing has increased, so has the need for highly educated people. In the 1960s, Marks and Spencer and John Lewis became the first companies to start recruiting graduates on a systematic basis, and most of the other large groups have now followed.

The challenge is described by Malcolm Hewitt, resources manager of Safeway: 'It needs special kinds of people to run a multi-million pound business with constant decisions to be made. They can end up looking after a store making hundreds of thousands of pounds a week turnover, with anything up to 300 staff and all the decisions that are part of that.

'Compared to most industries, it is also very highly geared to information technology. People need to make decisions based on the data that's generated from it. This led us to conclude that within the graduate population we're likely to find the competence we're looking for . . . the ability to analyse those problems; to solve the problems; the ability to lead people and so on. The business is also increasingly competitive - and that too requires the right sort of person.

'For the same reason we also take graduates into head office. There are opportunities in information technology, personnel, the marketing and trading division (advertising, buying and so on) and the logistics division - including warehousing and distribution. Then there are even more specialist roles, requiring specialised degrees, such as quality assurance.

'Retailing has expanded quite rapidly. While it may be slowing down, it hasn't come to a halt - so the opportunities remain good. Furthermore, most retailers now have one of the most sophisticated training programmes of any sector of industry.'

In spite of this, retailing is still little known as a graduate recruiter. Martin Groom, graduate recruitment and training manager for Boots, is chairman of the Consortium of Retail Teaching Companies (Cortco) which was founded about six years ago. This currently has eight members - B&Q, Boots, CWS, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Safeway, Sainsbury and Woolworths.

Its aim is to promote graduate careers in retailing and explain 'why it's a very exciting career to follow' when other careers are seen as more attractive. Mr Groom says it has three main activities:

'To pass information on in an interesting way to careers advisers. We've had several annual one-day conferences, held each September, to discuss a particular topic. The year before last it was: 'The methods we use to recruit staff.' Last year: 'The competencies we assess students against'; and this year it will be: 'Two years in' - looking at the early learning experiences of graduates.

'We provide up-to-date course material for lecturers and tutors. So far this has met with a mixed reception. This year we're providing them with a casebook of modern retailing case studies. Each of our members will work with one or two high-profile academic institutions and write on real retail issues. We are focusing on those operating retail degrees at first. We hope to have that produced early in the new year.

'For the student, we are now achieving greater contact by designing and running an 'Insight into Retailing' course which we ran last year at the Safeway Training College in Hertfordshire. We took 40 or 50 students away for the weekend, gave them exercises to do and provided them with feedback. We are now undertaking to run two a year - charging the students pounds 25. I like to think that we have contributed to raising the profile of retailing over the past few years.'

Although a Cinderella among graduate careers, the scale and complexity of its operations, the sophistication of its control systems, and the quality of its training programmes, ensure that retailing will attract a growing share of good quality graduates.'

Gillian Curley read Food Marketing Science at Sheffield Hallam University and graduated two years ago. She describes her experiences:

'It was a four year course, the third in industry. Safeway has strong links with Sheffield and they took me on for a year. They interviewed me again at the end of my fourth year and I got a job with Safeway permanently.

'All graduates get an extensive induction. We don't just understand what happens at head office, we also understand what goes on in store.

'Initially I worked in store advertising. That involved dealing with all the leaflets explaining new products, an in- store magazine, consumer promotions and so on.'

Describing her work, she says: 'We organise the photography with our advertising agency, check copy for libel and organise production for 368 stores making sure it is in on time.

'Within the department there are six people. They deal with demonstrations; tastings in store; with leaflets and banners and so on. It's hectic but very challenging . . . We don't deal with a particular area - you can be working one day on health and beauty and the next on meat.'

She has now been promoted. 'I work in the press and television department. I'm putting together some national press ads at the moment. I'm also still responsible for the Safeway Magazine in association with one of the national newspapers. I organise the production of that. We are given a lot of responsibility - which is very challenging.'

What qualities does she thinks one needs? 'I think you have to be lively and interested in food. You need to be willing to put yourself into the job, need to work well in a group, and you must be able to interact with people. It's quite challenging but very enjoyable.'