Kate Tyzack, head of recruitment at Marks & Spencer and chairman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says: 'The retail world is constantly changing, in operating methods, merchandise presentation and ways of selling - so just when you think you've caught up, it all changes again. That's tremendously stimulating and exciting. Also, and this sounds trite, sending a customer away truly satisfied is a fantastic feeling.'
The intellectual challenges of retailing resulted in the creation in 1983 of a Masters in business administration in retailing and wholesaling at Stirling University. Participating companies have included B & Q, Boots, Kwik Save, Marks & Spencer, John Menzies, Next, Selfridges, Tesco and W H Smith.
The first companies to recruit graduates regularly for retail management were John Lewis and Marks & Spencer in the Sixties. However, graduates have not replaced school-leavers completely. 'Most retailers seek graduates in conjunction with A-level school- leavers,' Ms Tyzack says. 'The expectation is that graduates will progress faster because they've done some of their maturing. But the training process will be similar.'
She says this two-pronged approach applies to store management. The approach for more specialist functions in retail head office is different. 'Retailers tend to be centralised operations, and the large ones base their expertise in one site. So there's not just retail management in stores but also a whole range of professions and skills required . . . people such as food technologists, operational research people, textile technologists, lawyers, IT professionals. . . .'
The Dixons Stores Group, with more than 850 Dixons and Currys stores, recruits graduates and school- leavers as trainee stores managers. However, Peter Bathmaker, personnel director, says: 'If we're looking for young people who can use their brains and manage people, they're likely to be going through the degree route. Some still come with A-levels, but we get few people of the quality we need through that channel.'
The same approach is also found in smaller retail operations, but these are more likely to expect employees to demonstrate success in store management before they progress to head office in specialist roles.
Ronnie Flax, retail director of Tie Rack, says: 'Graduates, with few exceptions, go into the stores as trainees. We don't make any promises, such as, 'eventually you are going into marketing or PR'. We say, 'you are going to work in the stores, and in due course we'll see what route your career within the company is going to take'. Many stay in store management.
'But a bright, capable graduate who has not got far on the managerial ladder within a year isn't going to have a career.'
As well as a sense of humour, Ms Tyzack seeks 'initiative, assertiveness, awareness of impact on other people, teamwork, flexibility and leadership'.
Mr Bathmaker says: 'Intellectually, running a retail branch isn't terribly challenging. You need a general level of functional intelligence, but we're tending to look for a person who is capable of leading a team, wants to deal with customers . . . and enjoys the sociable side of the job.'
Dixons also has a scheme for those with high intellect and the potential to become directors within 10 years.
Among changes Ms Tyzack believes will affect graduate careers in retailing are 'flatter management structures; the massive influx of information technology, so there is less processing of information and more taking action on information produced automatically; and new ways of shopping'.
Retailing is also demanding more of people. According to Mr Bathmaker: 'Competition means prices and margins will carry on being squeezed, so there's going to be more personal pressure to meet targets.'
Graduates choosing retailing employers are fortunate, Ms Tyzack says, because 'you can go and sample what it's like, visit half a dozen, see the 'customer interface', talk to people working there and ask to meet management staff'.
Organisations offering education and training courses relevant to retailing are listed in Careers in Retailing (fourth edition 1993) by Loulou Brown (Kogan Page).
ED WALKER graduated from Sheffield Business School in 1992 with a degree in International Business with Spanish. He is a commercial management trainee with Marks & Spencer in Birmingham and hopes to manage his own branch in five to eight years.
'I'd worked part-time with Marks & Spencer during my college years, so had an insight into the business. It just captured me in terms of training and career development, and Marks & Spencer itself appealed to me as a quality company.' His degree course included a year working in Madrid on a project for a leading retailer. On graduation he inquired about joining Marks & Spencer in Spain, but it recommended building up a basic knowledge of the British retail business first.
The training programme has three stages. 'The first 10 to 12 months involves commercial attachments on the sales floor. During this stage you become a supervisor of a section or department. I started on menswear and then foods. The important thing is learning by doing the job.'
The programme includes formal courses. This week Mr Walker is on a management skills development course in Melton Mowbray. He will soon start stage two of his programme, which lasts four to six months.
'After attachment to an assistant manager, I'll become responsible for an area of the store as an assistant manager. For stage three, I'll have a week or so on attachment with a commercial manager, an admin manager and a personnel manager.' He can then expect his first appointment as an assistant manager.
'The job satisfaction and the pace of retailing are the most rewarding things. You can have an idea, put something into action and see the results immediately.'