Success in store

Today, far from looking down on a career in retail, graduates are queuing up to get on to the shop floor, writes Jim Kelly

In the past, some people went to university to avoid working in a shop. Ingrained attitudes to "trade", the long hours and indifferent pay were enough to put many off a career in the retail sector. But for today's graduates, working for one of Britain's many retail businesses - especially the major "household names" - can be very rewarding. Employers, in a fiercely competitive sector, are desperately in need of smart managers, so career opportunities for graduates are improving all the time.

In the past, some people went to university to avoid working in a shop. Ingrained attitudes to "trade", the long hours and indifferent pay were enough to put many off a career in the retail sector. But for today's graduates, working for one of Britain's many retail businesses - especially the major "household names" - can be very rewarding. Employers, in a fiercely competitive sector, are desperately in need of smart managers, so career opportunities for graduates are improving all the time.

"Traditionally, graduates didn't want to end up working alongside the kids who didn't do well at school. Plus the customers - and the staff - are in your face all day," says Terry Jones, a spokesman for Agcas, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services. "But actually, in a business that values common sense and people skills more than qualifications, graduates can move very fast and end up earning good money - more than bank managers, for example."

The first decision for any graduate is whether to apply to the big national chains or to local or regional retailers. All the big brands have well-developed graduate entry schemes. But any graduate who is genuinely excited by the idea of selling may want to start somewhere much smaller. "It depends on what the individual wants," says Nigel Broome, chief executive of Skillsmart, the sector's training body. "Some may feel more comfortable in a less corporate environment. There may be relatively little freedom in a superstore, whereas a smaller environment may give more scope for flair and creativity." The bigger employers tend to take in graduates yearly at both store and head-office level, and specialist training may be set up for buyers, merchandisers, and managers in logistics, supply chains, human resources, finance, and so on. Some of these jobs offer travel opportunities, for example, visiting overseas suppliers.

However, it is at store level, where graduate salaries begin at around £20,000 a year, that the career structure has been most nebulous - a problem that Skillsmart is seeking to redress quickly. But many of those who start on the shop floor, so to speak, do end up at head office, where their first-hand experience counts for a lot. All employers insist that "people skills" head any list of required talents. This is not an industry in which someone can hide away in an office. John Lewis, which runs 26 department stores, and is co-owned by the staff, needs managers who can work with a range of people in a sensitive, rather than dictatorial, way. "We want people who can lead from the front, in a less traditional style perhaps, by motivating partners - they need to be able to engage with someone who has left school at 16, for example, as well as a more mature senior manager," says Michael Nathan, recruitment manager.

The stores, part of the wider John Lewis group, take on 10-15 graduates a year. Marks & Spencer, on the other hand, gets more than 5,000 graduate applications a year for around 100 vacancies in stores, and 20 at head office. A sophisticated online questionnaire helps to whittle down the hopefuls, using 10 key talents as criteria, headed, of course, by people skills. Career success, once graduates are on their way, reflects a real gift for business, says Shona Kent, M&S's graduate-recruitment campaigns manager. "I would say that commercial acumen is the first thing that stands out among the most successful, as well as resilience, flexibility and being driven by results."

Tesco employs 240,000 people in the UK and runs a graduate programme for between 100-150 people, which it has shortened to 18 months to give trainee managers a prompt taste of real responsibility. Sarah Hemus, resource manager for Tesco, recognises that successful candidates thrive in the retail environment: "These people love activity, they're action-orientated, and they like to gets things done and see results quickly. Stores are noisy and full of people - and it's people who are key."

Across the industry, graduates can expect to move fast if they have talent, and commitment. But they may meet internal competition, not all of which will come from people with degrees. Smart non-graduates, with several years of experience, can work their way up surprisingly quickly. Apprenticeship schemes are being revamped across the sector. Tesco, for example, took 500 on this year, and if apprentices complete the scheme, they have 70 per cent of the credits needed to enter the management programme - with "top-ups" available through further internal training.

There is one other emerging route into the sector that may well blossom in the next few years. Skillsmart is keen to develop two-year vocational degrees in retailing subjects - each linked to work-placement schemes. The University of the Arts in London is already running one such programme in retail management, alongside a BA Hons programme, at the London College of Communication. The academic year includes eight weeks of work experience. School-leavers considering university might like this quicker route to the shop floor.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister
TVSPOILER ALERT: It's all coming together as series returns to form
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Developer - Norfolk - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Software Developer - Norf...

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine