'My big breakthrough was the introduction of a leopard-skin thong. We sold out within weeks'

The recent news that Tesco has smashed through the £2bn-a-year profits barrier has put to bed forever the notion that retailing is small beer when compared with international banking or whiz-kid accountancy.

Now one of the world's top three international retailers - alongside the US-owned Wal-Mart and the French giant Carrefour - Tesco and its rivals need business-aware graduates to help manage and develop stores that are as much about insurance or fashion as they are about everyday food.

Supermarkets are by no means the whole picture, though. Retailing as a whole is the UK's largest employer outside the public sector. It employs more than three million people, or one in 10 of the UK workforce, in the sale of anything from IT and music to travel and pet food. Whether the store is a B&Q DIY outlet, a travel agency or a Virgin Megastore, the UK's £250bn-plus retail sector is both fast-moving and cut-throat.

The battle to anticipate future consumer trends as well as meet current ones - better or cheaper than your rivals, of course - is by no means restricted to high streets, shopping malls and edge-of-town retail parks. While retailing is still dominated by traditional stores, hard on their heels are internet shops or developments in "e-tailing", mail-order retailing offered by catalogue firms such as Littlewoods or Freemans and the US-inspired TV shopping channels.

Unlike many other popular graduate destinations, retailing is an unstuffy world where the ability to sell the product better than competitors - be it furniture, holidays, computers or cars - is more important than academic achievement or a degree from the "right" university. Aggressively meritocratic, the vast majority of graduates in retail - however brainy or well-connected - begin their career on the sales floor. Graduate starting salaries of between £19,000 and £22,000 are standard.

Tesco takes on between 100 and 150 graduates each year for training in retail management - slightly more than the norm - sifted out of an average 3,000 or so applications per year. The figures for Sainsbury's are roughly the same.

Outside food retailing, the picture is more mixed. Clothing retailer Next takes on approximately 50 graduates each year to become buyers and merchandisers, or for posts in other specialist areas, while John Lewis will this year take on just 15 out of a likely 1,600 applications.

Says the department store's recruitment manager Michael Nathan: "We choose graduates who are passionate about retailing and who have previous leadership experience via a university society or a voluntary organisation, perhaps.

"We don't care what class of degree they have, or what their subject is, but we do expect them to be able to communicate effectively with senior managers and with junior partners, and to be both people-focused and practical.

"In return, many can expect to be branch heads in charge of a £50m to £100m turnover within 10 years. For those who are prepared to work hard and make their own opportunities, we offer a truly fast-track career."

The Arcadia group, which owns brands such as Burton, Miss Selfridge, Topshop and Topman, offers a three-year retail management programme which encompasses basic management skills and the opportunity to shadow existing senior managers. The group's aim is to turn raw graduates into area managers within five years.

Retail travel has obvious attractions for graduates who yearn for foreign trips and who understand what makes a great holiday. The UK's largest tourism company, TUI, which markets its holidays in three key ways - via the web, the telephone and its portfolio of 750 stores - takes four milion people on holiday each year through brands such as Thomson, Simply Travel and Crystal. TUI tends to recruit graduates to work in the planning and trading division, where specialisms include planning new destinations and holidays, and deploying and developing new media.

Travel agency Thomas Cook has recently revived its graduate training scheme, with 10 graduate appointments last year in pricing, operations, multimedia and two posts in the holiday brand Signature.

Although 80 per cent of staff at the Waterstone's book chain are graduates, a university degree is not a prerequisite for joining the firm. A "passion for books" is the only requirement, says the company, which develops talented assistant managers to branch and then regional managers via its own internal fast-track scheme.

At Sainsbury's, successful graduates who can demonstrate that they are sufficiently versed in the retail lingo of "bottom lines" and "purchasing trends" are given the opportunity not only to learn how to run a business - each big grocery store, for example, being a multi-million pound business in its own right - but to make contacts and network for the future.

Aside from having at least a 2.2 in any subject, Tesco graduate trainees are also expected to have recent experience in a large retail food operation. Coal-faced experience of shelf-stacking or a spell as a cashier during the summer vacation is a valuable leg-up for any graduate looking to join a major supermarket chain.

During their one-year store management programme, Tesco trainees lead teams of between 150 and 1,000 people, launch new products and solve supply chain problems, whether the retail format is Extra, Express, Metro or Superstore.

For fans of remote shopping or IT, the fast-growing Tesco.com home delivery service is a popular destination for many graduates. Tesco.com, which began with wine-only sales but now stocks virtually all of the products available in-store, says it looks for graduates with "energy and ideas". In return, it says it offers the excitement of working in a still-growing e-retail operation with the safety net of an established blue-chip parent.

One of the chief attractions of a career in retailing is the sheer breadth of the different jobs on offer. Although most graduate recruits in a department store or hypermarket will begin by building a thorough knowledge of retail management basics, there are opportunities too to specialise in a whole raft of areas including loss prevention and security, supply chain logistics, finance and accountancy, HR, IT, property and estates and marketing. Future board directors may deliberately choose to get experience in more than one area.

If looking for the next available UK grocery superstore site or developing the latest IT weapons against credit card fraud do not appeal, then a job in buying will inevitably provide travel opportunities.

Outside product buying, many retailers are now looking beyond the UK to build their next superstore. As the UK grocery retail market looks set to reach saturation point in the near future, a posting to China, Russia or parts of Eastern Europe in search of new opportunities could be on the cards.

Juliette Toft, 31, is a babywear buyer for John Lewis. She travels regularly to China, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey and Portugal in search of new suppliers. A graduate in international business with French from Aston University, she joined Tesco as a graduate trainee and later spent six years in buying, much of it in men's accessories. She joined John Lewis two and a half years ago. Her long-term ambition is to be a wine buyer, perhaps for the John Lewis sister company Waitrose.

'My big breakthrough was the introduction of a leopard-skin thong. We sold out within weeks'

My big breakthrough at Tesco was the introduction of a leopard-skin thong for men in 100 per cent polyester, priced at £3.99. We sold out within weeks of the launch, shifting 4,000 units, and I'm proud to say that the chain still stocks something similar to this day; a polyester satin boxer. At John Lewis, I've had similar success with my launch of an own-label baby sleeping-bag, which is not only comfortable for babies, but which also offers what experts say is significant protection against cot-death.

Ninety per cent of our babywear is own-label, so rather than simply selling other manufacturers' products as other buyers do, my job is to source a whole range of suppliers who can make clothing and accessories to my specification.

I have my own designer who predicts the season's colours - next spring is going to see a lot of stone and mulberry, for example - while I literally work on three seasons at once. There are today's sales to analyse, the autumn of 2005 to put together and also a lot of forward planning for spring 2006.

It's my job to park my own tastes and prejudices and understand what sells and why. We 'edit' baby fashions for shoppers who can't go all the way to Hong Kong to look at new garments, but who expect us to pay attention to every last detail on their behalf - right down to the colour of the stitching on buttonholes.

I need "touchy-feely" skills that allow me to choose the right look for a collection, but I also need to be firmly grounded in terms of hard sales. It's the mix of creativity and sheer financial targets that makes being a buyer a really stimulating job.

'As an events manager, I plan the day from start to finish'

Sally Powell, 26, a politics graduate from Edinburgh University, is an events manager with Tesco. Her job involves organising and managing regular regional meetings between staff and directors, key investor relations events and the annual internal conference held in October. She joined the supermarket's corporate and legal affairs graduate programme last year after various roles as a fundraiser in the not-for-profit sector.

While at university, I discovered that I had a passion for communications and debating. Having worked for the V&A in London and following a spell in New York, I wanted to join a fast-paced firm that would stimulate my interest in politics, but I would only consider a company that had a strong record in corporate and social responsibility, or CSR. Luckily, Tesco fit the bill.

In my events management role, I plan the day from start to finish. I work on the timetable, the content and I help write the speeches. I also get involved with the logistics side such as accommodation and transport and I generally ensure that the event runs smoothly. I have recently written the content for our new investor relations corporate website, which has given me a real insight into what makes the company tick.

For the future, I'd like to get more involved in the government relations side of the business or perhaps take up a post in business development, which can include anything from opening new stores overseas to launching brand new products and services in the UK.

Handling the annual results event would be a great project for me - I joined too late to get involved in this year's results - but "corporate giving" also remains a passion. A role in developing Tesco's CSR policy would be a logical step for me.