Careers in retail: Counter culture uncovered

Rob Cowen lifts the lid on the diverse range of careers that together make up the retail sector

Mention working in the retail industry to some people and they'll say it's not a real career or it just means standing behind a checkout, endlessly serving customers. However, whether we realise it or not, retail plays a vital part in our daily lives, and careers in this dynamic industry are as diverse and wide-ranging as the products that are on sale.

There are over three million people working across a wide range of retail jobs in the UK, but if the closest you ever come to the industry is, well, buying stuff, it can be a little confusing working out exactly who does what. Let's take a look at a breakdown of some of the main areas of the industry and find out what really happens behind the counter...


Often seen as retail's dream job, buying is a very popular career choice for people looking to work in the industry. After all, what's not to like about spending someone else's money buying tomorrow's trends?

However, contrary to what some people think, it's not all glamourous. Buyers are responsible for purchasing the items that retail businesses need to be popular. This means that as well as being an expert on the products they source, buyers have to be highly analytical people who can accurately plan for the future by monitoring how items have sold in previous years.

Buyers can earn anything from £15,000 to £35,000 a year, depending on the company they work for and where they are based. Senior buyers and purchasing managers can earn around £50,000.


Martin Taylor, buyer, Wilkinson An average day for me might mean meeting suppliers, negotiating offers on new products, compiling new product promotions or working with product managers and our inventory team to make sure new ranges are on target for implementation. Buying can involve a lot of travelling as we source many products from Europe and the Far East. It can be a very tough job, but seeing product ranges that I have sourced finally hit the shelves gives me a real sense of achievement.


The responsibility for recruiting, developing and retaining the right workforce rests with the human resources (HR) department - they play a wide role in driving business performance.

The process of recruiting involves everything from creating job descriptions and developing pay and benefits packages to advertising vacancies and interviewing potential employees. Developing and retaining staff is an ongoing process and the HR department works closely with managers across the business to identify skills gaps and specific learning requirements, monitor salaries and review performance.

The HR team ensures that the business employs the correct balance of staff in terms of skills and experience and that training and development opportunities are available to all employees but, when required, the role can also involve the disciplining and dismissing of staff.

Personnel managers can earn £25,000 to £40,000 a year. Senior personnel directors in large organisations can earn in excess of £50,000 a year.


Shalina Alabaksh, learning and development manager, Marks & Spencer My role in the HR department concentrates on building employees' self learning, leading a team and designing and creating learning products which contribute to meeting business and department objectives. Individuals feeling valued and supported is very important to me - I want them to achieve their very best and know that their hard work will be recognised.


Store operations is the general term for the teams that are responsible for the smooth running of the retail business in-store, at ground level. From sales assistants to store managers, the majority of jobs in the retail industry fall under this heading.

Whatever level people start at, hard-working individuals in operations are rewarded with fast progression and early responsibility.

Roles in operations require excellent communication and customer service skills; a large part of management is interacting with both staff and customers.

Store managers for large retailers earn around £55,000 a year, but this varies between company and location. For instance, a general manager of a large hypermarket in London takes home between £60,000 and £90,000 a year.


Ross McEwan, garden centre manager, Squires Garden Centres My role is to manage the full day-to-day operations in all areas of the business. It is hugely rewarding to coach and mentor the junior managers and watch them develop and succeed, as it inevitably brings success to the team as a whole. I know when I am doing my job well as the store runs effectively and I have the pleasure of watching profits go up and costs come down.


The marketing and public relations (PR) department develops, promotes and sells the brand to its target audience.

Externally, marketing and PR executives work together with companies like advertising and media agencies to launch national campaigns and maximise the business or brand profile. Internally, by working closely with other departments, studying buying habits and building consumer profiles, the marketing and PR department can plan localised advertising campaigns, mailshots and in-store promotions to develop new lines and promote existing products.

Graduate trainees starting in marketing and PR departments earn around £22,000 per year. A marketing director of a large retailer can expect up to £100,000.


Sophie Crampin, senior brand manager, Sainsbury's I am responsible for deciding what Sainsbury's should advertise in newspapers and on the radio each week. I also have to make sure I am happy with the choices of media we are using - which papers and radio stations, what days and how often for example - to make sure it fits in our budget. Even though it is hard work and sometimes stressful, seeing people on the train reading one of my ads is very satisfying.


By continually monitoring the performance of stock and forecasting new trends, merchandising teams make sure that the right products appear in the right place, at the right time and in the right quantities.

Like all other areas of a business, merchandisers aim to maximise profit. They do this by keeping a close eye on sales figures and customer opinion, watching how products perform. With this vital information they can devise informed strategies, like dropping the price of certain products to boost sales or working with the marketing and PR team to plan promotions.

Merchandisers earn in the region of £20,000 to £40,000 a year. Senior merchandisers in large retail companies earn in excess of £50,000 a year.


Alex Hopfcroft, junior buyer, Boots My role at the online version of the store includes liaising and negotiating with suppliers, analysing sales trends and identifying new opportunities to achieve business targets. Sometimes the quick turnaround expected online can be challenging, and the healthcare regulations and legality required on some of our products add another dimension, but I'm rarely at my desk all day and the constant negotiating required means that there's never a dull moment.


As with any other industry, retail businesses need accountants and finance professionals to analyse their performance and make sure they stay on track. The finance department is responsible for planning and securing the financial future of the business, but there is a lot more to this than just number crunching at the end of the tax year.

Retail finance roles can be varied and challenging, often involving high-level responsibilities such as budgeting, monitoring store performance, annual and monthly trade and cost reviews, financial forecasting and risk analysis.

Finance managers can earn between £25,000 and £40,000 a year. More senior financial directors in large organisations can earn well in excess of £60,000 a year.


Bob Marshall, financial controller, BMB Clothing My role is to manage the financial accounting team, analyse business performance and identify areas for improvement. I find retail finance particularly rewarding as you are really at the hub of things and there is always the opportunity to be involved in the development of all aspects of the business. You need to be able to identify, react and adapt quickly to new business opportunities.


Across the retail industry, information technology (IT) departments support retail businesses by creating computerised infrastructures to improve the functionality of every level of a business.

With the recent developments in e-commerce and an increase in faster online access for the consumer, having a creative and progressive IT team has become increasingly important for retailers. In fact, the first point of contact for many consumers now rests with the IT department - a good-looking website, for example.

An average starting salary is around £25,000, dependent upon location, while a range of typical salaries at senior level or with experience (after 10 years in the role) are £44,000-£75,500.


Vicki Miller, Windows infrastructure specialist, HMV If you work hard in IT there are plenty of opportunities to move between departments and progress up the ranks. We can come up with new ideas, discuss them as a team and then, if they are feasible, put them into action. It can be a challenging role and we sometimes are put on the spot, but that just means pulling together as a team and putting in the hours for the good of the company.


How a shop looks, its window display, interior layout and overall visual image are essential in attracting customers through the front door; these fundamental elements are the responsibility of the visual merchandising department.

Used to promote new products, match seasonal themes or just to develop the character of the business, layouts and displays involve a balance of merchandise and props that work together to create the right atmosphere to trigger the consumer's buying impulses.

Artistic and creative ability are essential for the role, as are three-dimensional design and IT skills. A more experienced display designer could expect to earn up to £20,000 a year, and a display manager with a top store could earn up to £40,000 a year.


James Randall, senior brand retail manager, Topman I am responsible for brand communication, managing field teams of visual merchandisers and overseeing layout planning for new stores. My daily tasks involve everything from ensuring that our seasonal designs are being implemented to overseeing brand integrity in a new shop fit. Both international and UK travel is a big part of my job and I really enjoy the diversity and creativity in the role, as well as being able to see my hard work completed in a store.


Retail logistics involves the movement, handling and storing of products through a variety of modes of transport including rail, road, sea and air.

Logistics and distribution managers co-ordinate transport links and drivers, schedule deliveries and manage warehouse stock levels. The role involves liaising with external suppliers and internal merchandising and operations departments to make sure merchandise is available at the right place and at the right time.

Logistics department wages vary depending on what role you do, but supervisors can expect to earn around £23,000 a year, rising to over £35,000 for more senior employees.


Loic O'Connell, logistics supervisor, Tesco I manage a home-shopping department, ensuring all the orders are picked up from the shop floor. This involves overseeing the staff and following all the correct processes. My other tasks involve prioritisation and management. I feel rewarded at the end of the day, knowing the deliveries and the drivers have all been organised in the best possible way.

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