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Career Planning

Retail begins to sell itself

Stores are uniting to lure graduate trainees
"Retailing still has the image: if you don't work hard, you'll end up working in a shop," according to Kate Orebi-Gann, chairman of the Association of Graduate Recruiters and recruitment manager of Marks & Spencer. She says this is particularly true of the parents of sons. "Their families say: 'After three years of study you could have done better than that.' "

Newly qualified graduates remain conservative in making career decisions, with retailing rarely their first choice. Careers advisers have been slow to recognise the impact of the enormous changes taking place in the industry. According to graduates who work in retailing, its image among job-seekers also suffers because of the poor service still offered by some shop assistants, student experiences as part-time shelf-stackers and the portrayal of Curly Watts in Coronation Street.

The reality is that retailing, particularly in multiples and supermarket chains, has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. It not only provides graduates working in store management with real challenges in commercial and people management, but also offers a variety of specialist careers in such areas as information technology, logistics and finance.

Retailing has been transformed by "just-in-time" ordering and deliveries, new production processes and by information technology. Mrs Orebi-Gann notes that just-in time deliveries reduce stocks and so improve cash-flow and increase profits. This is aided by computerised tills, which mean that information on the pattern of sales is immediately available. Any changes in customer shopping behaviour - because the weather has changed, for example - can be immediately identified and new goods ordered in response.

New manufacturing technology makes it easier to act on changes in demand. For example, some garments can now be made up colourless and dyed at the last moment to meet customer demand.

Reflecting retailing's growing intellectual content, eight universities now run full-time degree courses in retailing. Bournemouth runs full- and part-time MPhil and PhD courses, and Stirling University runs a full- time MBA in retail and wholesale.

Retailing has also become international. Overseas retailers have moved into Britain. For example, the German-based discount food retailer Aldi has opened 160 stores in Britain since 1990 and is growing at the rate of 25 to 30 new stores a year. British stores are investing abroad. In the next year Marks & Spencer will add to its existing chain in France; in October, it opens a new store in Cologne, the first of several in Germany; and it already has a presence in the Far East.

In spite of all this, entrenched attitudes have not changed. However, eight leading companies have got together to promote graduate careers in retailing to students, academic staff and their careers advisers. This consortium, CORTCO, comprises Boots, CWS (the Co-operative Societies), Kingfisher (including B&Q, Comet and Woolworths), the John Lewis Partnership (including Waitrose), Marks & Spencer, Safeway, Sainsburys and Tesco.

Until recently, the consortium ran weekends to introduce students to retailing but, says its chairman, Hilary Woodland, they benefited only a few people. She says that as well as events for careers advisers "a new avenue is the production of case studies for use in business studies, degree courses and in retail degree courses."

The consortium's efforts seem to be paying off. Miss Woodland said that members had seen a "big change in attitudes and graduate perceptions over the past two years". She added: "I went to 25 careers fairs last year and the stands for Marks & Spencer, Sainsburys and other retailers were among the busiest. Also the number and calibre of graduates was the highest ever."

CORTCO members pay newly qualified graduates between pounds 15,000 and pounds 16,000 a year. Progress is usually fast, and most graduates are surprised at the amount of responsibility they are given. For example, within 18 months of joining Marks & Spencer you could be a running a store with an annual turnover of pounds 7m to pounds 8m a year. Working for Safeway, you could have four managers and 50 staff reporting to you.

The rewards and career prospects offered by CORTCO members and other top retailers are good. However, it is one of the recent entrants to Britain who is setting the pace. Aldi, a food discounting chain with 4,500 stores in nine countries, offers new graduates a starting salary of pounds 26,000 plus a car. After nine months' intensive training they are expected to become district managers with responsibility for between five and seven stores, progressing to regional managers. They can take charge of as many as 50 stores, or enter property management, finance and administration, warehousing and distribution, or purchasing.

However, as Aldi's UK managing director, Trevor Coates, points out, it's a tough environment. There are many applicants, but "it's difficult to attract the right calibre". He seeks graduates with people skills, leadership qualities, the ability to react quickly to situations and says "as they progress, they've got to be analytical". These are the skills needed to succeed in any major retailing organisation.