Fast-track retail schemes can lead to rapid increases in responsibility and salary

The UK's top retailers are increasingly turning to online recruitment to help fill 100,000 new jobs in the sector. The annual Retail Trends Survey reveals that more than 90 per cent of Britain's top 50 retailers plan to use the internet to help recruit staff over the next few months to fill the growing number of job vacancies.

The UK's top retailers are increasingly turning to online recruitment to help fill 100,000 new jobs in the sector. The annual Retail Trends Survey reveals that more than 90 per cent of Britain's top 50 retailers plan to use the internet to help recruit staff over the next few months to fill the growing number of job vacancies.

Other reasons for growing recruitment methods are low unemployment and increased competition from a more customer-oriented public sector, claims B&Q, which creates more than 1,000 management jobs a year.

A further consequence of the retail sector's current demand for a growing number of high-calibre staff is rising salaries, reports Carl Gilleard of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR). "Our latest study shows that the average starting salary for graduates in the retail sector is £18,400 – around £1,100 below the average across all sectors. But it is predicted that retail is likely to increase salaries this year by 3.3 per cent, compared to the national average of 2.5 per cent. It's also worth noting that although starting salaries are relatively low, they rise extremely quickly."

Indeed, retail offers graduates a fast track into senior management – with the wages and benefits that accompany it – which is one of the chief attractions of the sector to university leavers. "I knew that I wanted a career, not a job, and one that offered early responsibility and the chance to continually progress. That's exactly what I've got," says Shona Findley, a 24-year-old department manager at John Lewis, who joined its graduate recruitment scheme in July 2000. "My first management responsibility was just 12 weeks into the scheme."

Also luring Findley into a career in retail was the customer contact and variety. Other attractions include the up-to-date, innovative training in management that many supermarket and department stores are now well known for. In addition, Stephen Lochhead, head of graduate recruitment and development at Asda – which is recruiting 120 graduates this year – points to the growing global opportunities. "Next year, we will be changing our graduate recruitment scheme to make it possible for new recruits to spend time, say, in the USA."

Like many graduates, Findley used work experience while still at university as a way in to a career in retail. It not only gives you a taster of what retailing is all about, but also increases your chances when it comes to application time.

Also making you stand out from the competition, says Charlotte Brooks, recruitment manager at John Lewis, is any experience in leadership. "Those who have been the president of a club or society or who have been involved in leading a big university project are the kind of people we're looking for," she explains. "It reveals good teamworking experience, as well as motivational and organisational skills."

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 multi-skilled and capable of multi-tasking, as well as entrepreneurial with good risk assessment skills and the ability to tune in to other people in an environment that is often pressurised. At Tesco, successful applicants are even required to have what they call "the retail gene". Kate Aspinwall, education liaison manager, explains: "It refers to the buzz that the world of retail can give people. If you don't have it, this probably isn't the career for you."

Most major retail employers offering a recruitment scheme for graduates have a minimum requirement of a 2.2 in any discipline and provide broad-based training. Usually, you'll start on the shop floor, getting to grips with the basics of the industry and this will be supplemented by classroom-based learning. You'll probably be moved around various departments to widen your experience and it won't be long before you take on the role of section manager. While some people continue to move up the management hierarchy, others decide to to use their training as a stepping stone into other areas: fashion, buying, personnel, PR, marketing or finance.

A career in retail is not to everyone's taste, however. If you can't cope with long hours – which can be particularly harsh in this sector – you may want to think again. Likewise, if you lack physical strength and stamina, then retail may not be for you. Standing on your feet for long periods, dealing with a verbally abusive public and managing demanding staff can all be in a day's work.

"It can feel a bit like school, what with the carrot-and-stick style of management and hierarchical structure," adds one management trainee, although this certainly isn't the case in all stores. She also points out that the notion of being nominated "employee of the month" is enough to send some graduates screaming for cover.

Retail is not an easy ride, admits Aspinwall. "But it's easy to get passionate about it. It's exciting, challenging and interesting." If you think it might be for you, use careers fairs and presentations to make contacts and remember that competition can be keen, particularly for well-known companies and larger chains, so it is important to begin to research employers and prepare applications early.

'As a retail manager, you are in many ways your own boss'

Ian Kent is store manager at Tesco's Metro store in Oxford Street, London

When I was doing my A-levels, we had to do a two-week work placement. I ended up in Marks & Spencer and thoroughly enjoyed it. When it came to my university choice, I chose to study retail management at Surrey University. It was a business degree, with a retail slant, although most major graduate recruiters in retail do take any degree discipline.

I got a job at the Tesco next to the university during the summer holidays to earn extra money. I found it was a very dynamic, flexible and fun place to work. I've found that in some major companies there are massive layers of management and you have to call people Mr this or Mrs that. Tesco is far less traditional and that suited me more.

I was accepted on Tesco's graduate recruitment scheme in 1994. It was hard to get on, with two full days at an assessment centre. The scheme officially lasts 24 months, but it is based on how well you do, and I managed to complete it within 11 months.

The first stage was a store familiarisation. Then I worked in three section manager positions. After I'd finished the scheme, I was appointed as trading manager in a new store in Henley. I worked my way up and have been store manager for the past three years, first at the Andover Metro store, then Canary Wharf and now Oxford Street.

I love the fact that Oxford Street is one of our flagship stores in London, with more customers than any other store. I also love the fact that even though I'm part of a massive company, I have my own multi-million pound business, with 200 staff to motivate and challenge. In many ways, as a retail manager, you are your own boss.