All's well on the shop front

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.

Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

General Cover Teacher - Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Qualified Teachers needed for Supply in t...

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Welsh Spe...

Reception Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking to...

Primary Supply Teachers Required

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: primary teacher Hertfordshire

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on