Job market / Work experience

A career in retail: more than shop work

retail_mobile_190Our love of conspicuous consumption shows no sign of abating, despite the best efforts of the current recession. But few of us consider applying this interest to our career and many of us seem to harbour some pretty negative – and firmly entrenched – perceptions about the retail sector. It’s no wonder that the UK retail industry struggles to attract high calibre graduates to their ranks. Despite holding its position as the largest commercial sector in the world, this is one of the few areas that – year on year – sees graduate vacancies go unfilled.

One of our careers consultants* recently attended an AGR retail focus group to establish why graduates shun this sector and the feedback was conclusive, if not surprising. Retail struggles to gain a foothold with students due to some pretty pervasive myths:

  • There are limited career opportunities and progression
  • The hours are long, irregular and often unsociable
  • The work is basic and mundane with little to challenge or stimulate
  • The pay is low and certainly not comparable with other sectors

It doesn’t require a huge quantum leap to understand why these views persist. For many of us our first experience of paid employment is in the retail sector – working in shops or supermarket during evenings and weekends, to help pay our way through college or university. Whether consciously, or otherwise, retail becomes synonymous with low paid, low status, menial jobs – not what you go to university for, right? But are you limiting your career horizons by holding on to a view that’s just a little outdated…?

“Retailing isn’t all about shops – it’s about the stuff that makes shops happen”

A recent survey by RateMyPlacement highlighted gaps in students’ understanding about the sector: more than 50% were unable to state with confidence what a career in retail involves. The variety both within and between job roles can come as something of a surprise. Yes, there are retail management programmes, designed and structured to develop the next generation of store and branch managers, but this is only one – of many – graduate functions. Other specialist areas include buying, merchandising, advertising, marketing and human resources as well as IT, finance, logistics and law. Thanks to my experience in HE careers, I can say – with some confidence – that these job roles remain pretty popular: rare is the student who discounts advertising, IT or finance positions because they are low status and poorly paid! So why not consider those options in the retail industry?

Don’t discount the benefits of a generalist graduate programme either, particularly if you’re looking for a challenge but haven’t found a niche yet. A generalist role will give you the opportunity to develop a broad skill set, whilst keeping future options open. Some retailers have their own in-house magazines, customer service departments, environmental policy and community liaison departments – all possible areas to move into from the foundation of a generalist graduate programme.

So far so good, you say – but what about the salary? Well, there are some organisations that offer an eye wateringly high starting salary of £40K – step forward Aldi. Now, it may be a little disingenuous to claim this is representative of the sector but with an average starting salary of £24 000, you won’t be facing penury either.

“The challenge is to bring retail to life”

Innovation and sustainability are central to the success of the sector in a globalised economy, and this is where you come in. There is a real opportunity for resourceful, creative graduates to contribute on all fronts, at all levels. You can shape society in real and meaningful ways by influencing decisions about what we buy and how we shop. Think ethics and retail are uncomfortable bedfellows? Think again. The Co-operative may be at the vanguard of fair-trade, ethical initiatives but many of the big UK (and international) retailers are close behind.

“Yes, it’s hard work….”

The retail world can be hard work and you may find evenings and weekends are not entirely your own. But the chances are you’ll be making sacrifices whatever career path you choose, particularly when you’re starting out and want to make an impression. Just ask those aspirational accountants, lawyers and ad executives how much free time they have. There certainly are graduate training schemes that operate a 9-5 working week, but don’t assume it’s the majority. Try to be realistic about your career choice and the demands of graduate employment. If you’re looking for variety, challenge and the chance to take some early responsbility, then don’t be quite so hasty to dimiss careers in retail. You might just be surprised.

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