Graduates who overlook careers in retail because of student days on the shop floor should think again, says Kate Hilpern

Familiarity breeds contempt. This, believes Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), is the reason the retail industry doesn't come high up the careers wish-list of most graduates. "It's a sector we think we all know about because we all shop. And if we worked as students, the chances are we worked in retail," he says. "But both these experiences give a jaundiced view of retail. You don't get to see all the functions that are involved behind the scenes, like buying, store management, logistics and HR. The big retailers, in particular, are sophisticated businesses with some of the widest range of jobs and impressive training schemes."

British notions that working in shops is for the unskilled and poorly educated don't help, adds Terry Jones of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS). "At a recent careers fair in London, Sainsbury's was the least popular stand. Students walked straight past it, despite having a realistic chance of getting on its graduate scheme, which is excellent. I think the industry needs to do more to address its image problem."

Suzanne Whittle, 24, is one graduate who saw past the stereotypes and is now enjoying a job as department manager for women's wear and lingerie at John Lewis. She says, "Having joined John Lewis 2002, I now have complete control of a department with a £5m turnover and 48 staff. When I got on the scheme, lots of my friends from Cambridge University said, 'Oh you're going to work in a shop?' but there's so much responsibility and variety involved. People just don't seem to realise."

Suzanne's tales of early responsibility and a varied day-to-day working life are by no means unique - not least because the retail industry is the UK's largest employer outside the public sector, offering vast numbers of career opportunities. Eleven per cent of all UK workers - three million in all - work in the industry, which boasted nearly 200,000 new jobs in 2002 - 33 per cent of them at managerial or supervisory level.

While salaries may not be as competitive as some other sectors, they're not far behind. According to latest figures from the AGR, the median graduate salary is £21,000 and graduates in retail are paid an average of £19,500. "Graduates in retail are paid slightly more than accountancy graduates and slightly less than public sector graduates," says Gilleard. "And there are exceptions, of course."

Take Marks & Spencer. The starting salary for a graduate trainee ranges between £20,000 and £26,000, depending on location and role. "It doesn't take long for it to rise," adds Shona Kent, graduate and recruitment campaigns manager.

Likewise, at Sainsbury's, the starting salary for the graduate recruitment scheme is £21,700, and according to Steven Mulven, graduate recruitment manager, "This is reviewed every six months because of the responsibility that comes with the role."

Since joining Sainsbury's two years ago as a graduate trainee, Ruth Bailey, 24, has increased her salary by 50 per cent. "I certainly earn it," she says. "The work is very hard. But the fact that it is so challenging makes it really stimulating."

Like most graduate trainees in the sector, she spent the first few months learning about the various functions of the supermarket chain. "This was a major part of the year-long scheme, at the end of which I became a buyer - a role I loved - and I have now become a category planning manager, which has even more responsibility because it fits the work of buyers into the bigger corporate picture."

According to Peter Kennedy of Skillsmart, the official skills council for the retail sector, the big retailers have increasingly been focusing on improving the amount of exposure and support gained in the early months of graduate recruitment schemes, so that they can confidently throw people like Ruth in at the deep end as soon as possible. "Employers want graduates who they can depend on to learn and progress quickly. Consequently, they can be virtually running their own business in a very short period of time - often as little as six months."

Little wonder that despite many graduates' disinterest in the sector, entry is increasingly competitive. For the 150 graduates accepted annually on Tesco's training scheme, there are generally around 5,000 applications. Clare Price, graduate recruitment manager, explains, "Many graduates are realising that we are not that old-fashioned supermarket from the 1970s, but that we are a major player in the modern market." Indeed, Tesco operates in 13 countries and with more than 225,000 employees in this country it is the UK's biggest private-sector employer.

Career choice is certainly not something graduates will lack at Tesco, with no less than nine different office based schemes, ranging from HR to marketing to Each lasts a year to 18 months. The other 50 per cent of Tesco graduates are selected for the 12-month store management scheme, involving everything from meeting monthly sales targets to motivating a team of sales assistants.

But graduates shouldn't expect a strictly structured training process, stresses Price. "In the past this was the case, but now it's much more bespoke, so that we can concentrate on enhancing people as individuals. So if a graduate has a particular skills gap, such as presentational skills, that's where they'll be developed. What we've learned is that there's no point in getting creative, ambitious graduates in and then treating them all exactly the same."

So what kind of graduates make it in retail? "Those that have the 'retail gene'," says Price. "If you don't get an automatic buzz from the world of retail, it probably isn't the career for you." Other essential attributes, according to the Consortium of Retail Teaching Companies (CORTCO), include excellent communication and interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to maintain energy levels and generate fresh and innovative ideas. You'll need to be a multi-tasker, entrepreneurial with good risk assessment skills, and have the ability to relate to all kinds of people in a high-pressured environment.

The most common area where graduates fall down, according to employers, is commercial awareness. For anyone interested in retail, work experience is therefore key. There are a growing number of formal, but unpaid, work placement schemes offered by, among others, John Lewis, Tesco and Marks & Spencer. And if you don't get on one of these, you could get a job in any kind of shop and make notes on how areas like buying, stock turnover, pricing, staff training, customer service are organised. Mentioning your understanding of such topics on your application form will help you stand out. If you're able to work in different kinds of retail environments, even better - you'll be able to refer to the difference in culture between, for example, department stores, supermarkets and niche stores.

It's also worth remembering that employers value transferable skills. Felicity Biggs, 23, a graduate trainee at Marks & Spencer, says, "I hadn't done any work in retail since a work experience stint when I was 16. But the experience I'd had in teaching and office based jobs since leaving university were recognised."

All degree disciplines are generally accepted, although you will almost certainly need a 2.2 or above. In fact, employers tend to welcome a variety of backgrounds. "For us, a degree demonstrates a certain element of intellectual ability, but what is far more important is initiative and drive and a strong motivation to work in retail," says Michael Nathan, recruitment manager at John Lewis. "We think that exposure to as many areas of the business as possible enables graduates to make an informed choice about their career path towards the end of the scheme," he says.

All is not lost if you don't get on the central scheme, he says. You can apply to training schemes in individual branches, for example, or work your way up from the bottom - although you will get a lower starting salary and the progression is slower.

According to Carl Gilleard, a straw poll in retail would reveal a huge number of graduate employees who didn't go through training schemes. "Retailers are good at spotting talent, so there are plenty of other opportunities to build a career," he says.

'Responsibility comes immediately'

Danielle Howe, 23, is in her second month on the Asda graduate recruitment scheme

After my degree in management studies at Nottingham University, I decided to apply to Asda because it had such a fantastic reputation. Throughout my course, I'd got more and more interested in retail because it's so fast moving and there have been a lot of exciting changes in the industry in recent years.

Although it was a very competitive selection process, it didn't feel like that. Asda has a very friendly culture and the assessment was actually really good fun.

I think I got through because Asda need people who can communicate well and work as part of a team, as well as my leadership skills. I think I demonstrated those through having been head girl at my school, and getting involved in lots of organising at university. I'm currently working in the Wakefield store, where I'm learning loads about management. Responsibility comes immediately, and this Christmas, I'll be in charge of seasonal gifts, which is a huge area. This practical experience is balanced with modules of learning.

My next step is to work in Asda House, where I have met people with such interesting jobs that I honestly don't know what post I'd like to end up with.

'It was tough, but I got through'

Nykolas Bromley, 24, joined Tesco's graduate recruitment scheme 15 months ago

After my degree in politics, I joined Ladbrokes graduate recruitment scheme. But after managing a betting shop in Cambridge for a year, I decided to apply to the Tesco graduate programme in corporate purchasing because I wanted to work in a head office function instead of store management. Corporate purchasing refers to all goods and purchases not for resale.

The assessment process was tough, but I got through, and although the scheme lasts up to 18 months, I was given my first full-time post after 11 months.

I really enjoyed the training period, which was made up of a number of three-month placements, interspersed with time in stores. I had a placement in our print centre, which is like a business within a business, governed by corporate purchasing. Another placement involved being a buyer within our retail consumables team, which looks after all disposable items, such as wine carriers and disposable cutlery.

Now, I work in business support, which covers head office expenditure. I cover travel and accommodation. Since Tesco has stores in 13 countries and operating centres in India and Hong Kong, this is a challenging job and involves lots of negotiating and communication. It's really varied, with exposure at high levels.