For graduates, retailing may not be the first choice of career, but it offers excellent opportunities. Meg Carter reports
The face of retailing is changing dramatically. Major supermarket chains are looking to diversify into financial services, and even into the sale of gas and electricity. Others are exploring the potential of using other ways to sell their wares, such as via the Internet. Meanwhile, a new generation of management opportunities is opening for graduates.

The appeal of retailing has traditionally been restricted by low pay and unsociable working hours. For many it may remain a career of second choice, but today's graduates are being wooed harder than ever. Most leading chains now offer structured graduate recruitment and training schemes. And a growing number, eager to win the best applicants, are talking graduates' language by placing greater stress on "individuality" and "creativity".

At Sainsbury's, the emphasis is on flexibility and the ability to put core skills into practical use, says Jay Snaith, the company's resourcing manager. "We recognise there are significant differences in what managers' jobs involved in the past and what they will involve in the future," he concedes. "Over the last two years, we've significantly changed our recruitment criteria. Core competencies are now the basis of graduate recruitment. We look for skills underpinning knowledge, and a candidate's ability to apply them."

It's a similar picture at Boots the Chemist, where Nicky Hill, group succession development manager, reports a steady increase in the number of graduates being recruited across a broad spectrum of different functions - from in-store management to specialist areas such as pharmacy marketing, finance, personnel and logistics. "We want all graduate recruits to have senior management potential," she says. "We're working towards a graduate intake version of our senior management assessment system, judging applicants on a broader range of criteria, including consumer focus and innovation."

The core skills now sought by Sainsbury's include managing change, customer focus, self-motivation and analytical thinking, Snaith adds. Although starting salaries are often below those offered in other business sectors - pounds 14,500 to pounds 17,000 was the industry range in 1996 - a graduate can move from being a trainee to managing a small to medium-sized regional branch within seven to 10 years - a significant incentive, he says.

Graduates considering a career in retail have three main choices: store management; commerce, which involves buying, logistical planning and distribution; and information technology. "Established leaders like John Lewis and Marks & Spencer have taken on graduates in IT for quite some time," says Michael Day, careers adviser at Oxford University's appointments committee.

More than a dozen universities and colleges are now running specialist courses in retailing, and some colleges - such as Manchester Metropolitan - have close links with particular retailers. However, while strong candidates with business degrees can expect to move up the ranks fast, candidates with a general degree, or even no degree at all, are often given equal consideration, as more often than not employers seek "people people".

Prospects for career development beyond the millennium, however, are difficult to gauge. And this is likely to become even trickier as technology and lifestyles change. For the time being, one indicator is business performance and market share.

Established players continue to dominate in all areas of retailing, although fierce competition can lead to significant year-on-year fluctuation. Amongst food retailers, for example, Tesco and Sainsbury's are battling hard for market share. The market researcher Mintel reports that Tesco's market share (by sales) rose from 10 per cent to 13.5 per cent between 1990 and 1995. Sainsbury's share over the same period also rose - from 11.2 per cent to 13.3 per cent - but slipped behind Tesco for the first time.

Smaller organisations may offer faster career development, but beware. According to Mintel's figures, large food retailers - which account for more than three-quarters of total UK sales - increased their share between 1990 and 1995 by 6.7 per cent, and small businesses lost share by the same amount.

Competition is just as fierce in other sectors of retailing. In womenswear, Marks & Spencer remains a clear leader - with 16.2 per cent market share in 1996 compared with its nearest rival, Burton Group, with market share of 7.4 per cent (Mintel). However, Marks & Spencer's share is down half a percentage point from 1994, although it remains one of the retailers best able to offer career development overseas.

Graduates should also consider how well established a chain's recruitment scheme is, and its reputation. Day advises: "While many people think of Marks & Spencer and John Lewis as operating the best schemes, new programmes are often just as good." Kingfisher, which launched its graduate recruitment just four years ago, has already established a solid reputation.

Corporate personality is another important consideration. "Every retailer has its own style and approach," says Jo Nicolson, consultant in graduate recruitment at NBS Assessment Service, and a former personnel officer at WH Smith. Marks & Spencer is very different in outlook to John Lewis, and both differ from Sainsbury's in their approach. "While some encourage innovative thought and creativity, others pride themselves on a standardised, consistent approach."

Only by meeting the companies or, ideally, by spending time on work experience, can a potential applicant assess which offers the right work environment. "Candidates must get a clear picture of the opportunities that exist. Eager employers may play up how fast a graduate can move to head office," she cautions. "Ask what potential there is after store management, and how easily you can move between functions."

Retailing is characterised by a high fall-out rate once middle managers have been in place for five to eight years, Nicolson adds. The good news, however, is that by that time most of them will have built good transferable skills. This is a point endorsed by Lawrence Rosen, managing director of Office Angels and a former trainee manager at Great Universal Stores. Even those who don't see it as a long-term career option could do worse than try it, he says.

"Retailing offers amazing management training in marketing, and it offers an insight into what customers purchase, and how to control and motivate staff." And for those who stick with it? "It's fast-moving and needn't take long to get to the top, if you're good enough".