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Retailing | The Careers Service Retailing – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

Do you enjoy keeping up with market trends? Are you keen on motivating and managing people? Are you commercially savvy? You might think that the retail industry only offers shop work. In fact, the industry offers graduates a career path to corporate management and roles in areas such as marketing, merchandising, buying and finance, HR, logistics and e-commerce. You could be sourcing the latest fashions, working on advertising campaigns, merchandising the latest products or analysing sales figures to predict future profits. A career in retail offers many opportunities which often include on-the-job training, speedy career progression, early responsibility and international roles.

The sector in the UK economy

The UK Retail sector totalled £358 billion in sales in 2016 and is the largest private sector employer in the UK. The sector is made up of 290,000 physical retail outlets plus online businesses. Staff movement in this sector is quite high, as skills are easily transferable from one setting to another. This creates many and varied career opportunities for those wanting to take them.

Life in the retail sector never stands still. Issues such as GM food, nutrition for children and adults, food labelling, food safety, corporate responsibility and sustainability, low pricing, value for money and loyalty schemes hit the headlines every day, all emanating from the world of retail. The UK’s exit from the E.U. will add more complexity to just about every aspect of a retail business: from product sourcing and the supply chains all the way through to the price that shoppers will pay at the till.

Consumers can now choose how they shop – in stores, on the internet, via mail order, via the TV and using mobile phones (m-commerce). This multi-channel offering is likely to expand, creating more jobs as it does so and raising the profile of technical skills for this sector. Most retailers offer online buying to customers and this has involved huge development and new thinking in related functions such as the supply chain and marketing. Online retailing, whilst still dwarfed by its high street counterpart, has remained resilient during the recession, and has continued to grow with ever-increasing levels of broadband penetration. Online sales now account for 12.4% of retail sales (ONS, June 2015) having risen from 2.7% just 7 years earlier.

Retail incorporates a range of organisations: large department stores, DIY and gardening stores, holiday and travel stores, chain stores, supermarket chains, pharmacists, booksellers, wine and spirit retailers, and SMEs, as well as online and mail order companies.

With multi channel retailing, complex supply chain routes, developments into foreign markets and the need to increase productivity, there is likely to be strong and continued demand for managers and professionals in this sector.

Types of job

Retailers do not only require staff in specialist retail positions such as store management, buying, merchandising, and logistics and transport. They also need the staff required by most businesses, such as marketing, personnel and finance professionals. Retail graduate traineeships involve experience in a range of areas, including strategic management activities. Most graduate schemes pay in the region £20,000-£32,000, although there are some as high as £40-42,000. Salary packages  often include additional benefits such as life assurance, gym membership, private healthcare, share options and even company cars.

Sector-specific roles

Listed below are the major sector-specific roles. Other roles exist in product development, fashion design, finance, visual merchandising, HR, PR and marketing, and even property.

Retail Managers

People in this role oversee store (or department) systems, such as stock, product supply, trading activities, customer service, sales forecasting and targeting, cost and quality management, staff management and development, promotional activities and layout of merchandise.


Buyers are responsible for planning and selecting a range of products to sell in retail outlets. They negotiate with suppliers and attend trade fairs; make decisions about the products in terms of quantity, quality and desirability; and produce sales forecasts and reports on new ranges for senior management. They aim to ensure customer need and demand are met. Knowing the market is essential.


Merchandisers are responsible for ensuring that products appear in the right store at the appropriate time and in the correct quantities. This involves working closely with the buying teams to forecast trends, plan stock levels and monitor performance. Whilst the buyer selects the lines, the merchandiser decides how much money will be spent, how many lines should be bought and in what quantities. This is an analytical role with a high degree of responsibility as profitability can be affected by how successfully merchandisers do their job!

Supply Chain, Logistics & Distribution

Supply chain professionals focus on managing the supply chain process from production through to customer delivery. The role involves co-ordinating a range of resources including raw materials, staff, transport, storage, information and final products. This management must be achieved alongside other targets, such as cost management, environmental targets, and health and safety legislation. Logistics or supply chain managers rely on IT to help them track, plan and forecast demand.

E-commerce roles

E-commerce adds a new dimension to careers in this sector. IT and marketing take on new importance in terms of how product information is communicated to customers. Systems relating to product supply, delivery, customer enquiry and order handling need careful management so that customer expectations are met in such a competitive environment.

Entry points

Management traineeships

Graduate positions are normally management traineeships, entered after a first degree. The majority of retail schemes are open to graduates of all degree disciplines, although there are some schemes (particularly in fashion buying and areas such as food technology) where a relevant degree is sought. There is tremendous variety in the schemes that are available to graduates – everything from marketing to distribution to online retail. Schemes may be specific from the start or may involve rotation around various departments before deciding where to specialise. Almost all schemes require you to spend some time on the shop floor so that you can appreciate how the business works – even though this may not be your chosen role. Closing dates for schemes are often towards the end of Michaelmas term, so apply as soon as you have done significant research to make a competitive application. Some schemes will fill more quickly than others.

Example graduate schemes

  • Marks & Spencer‘s graduate opportunities span across Head Office and stores, with roles in Retail Management, Buying, Merchandising, Product Design, Food Buying and Food Technology & Food Product Development, Logistics & Supply Chain, HR, Marketing, M&S Digital, IT, Software Engineering, and Property. Graduate Scheme salary is £23,500-£28,000.
  • Boots has 6 graduate schemes: Global Commercial Programme, Finance Programme, Technology Programme, Retail Management Programme, Supply Chain Programme and Operations Programme. Salary is £25,000 plus a £1,000 welcome bonus.
  • John Lewis Partnership are currently reviewing their graduate scheme, so there will be no applications during 2017/18. Expect more news in summer 2018.
  • Arcadia (includes Burtons, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge and Topshop) run graduate programmes focusing on Finance and Digital as well as Buying and Merchandising. Arcadia recruit for these roles all year round (Finance is 3 times per year).
  • Asda  2 graduate programmes of 2 years: the first 6 months are spent in store followed by specialisation in either operational or commercial streams.
  • Tesco offers around 17 different graduate programmes which cover their main 3 operational areas: Business, Retail and Commercial. Salaries range from £26,000-£32,000.
  • Sainsbury’s Central Leaders Graduate Scheme offers 4 x 6-month rotational placements in areas such as HR, Marketing, General Merchandising, Trading, and Digital. Salary is £32,000.

There are many other retailers offering excellent schemes for graduates and keen to recruit. Other examples are: Dunhumby, HSBC Bank, Majestic Wine Warehouses, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons, Next, Primark and River Island. You can also consider online retailers such as Amazon, the N Brown Group, ASOS or the Shop Direct Group.

Retailers also offer many other opportunities to join them outside of their graduate schemes and across all parts of their businesses. Use the retailer’s website to find out what they currently have available.

International opportunities

We expect the larger retailers to continue to expand internationally and with this will come even greater opportunities for an international retailing career. Boots already operate in 15 countries; Tesco similarly are in 14 countries. Asda and George are part of the Walmart company and so have a ready-made network in both the UK and USA.

Skills & experience

Skills needed

The following are skills most commonly required in the retail sector. Specific roles (or retailers) may seek additional skills so please check their requirements in detail before applying.

  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • Evidence of leadership and management qualities
  • Team work
  • Good levels of numeracy and IT
  • Negotiation and persuasion skills
  • Drive and enthusiasm for retailing
  • Analytical skills
  • Well developed commercial awareness
  • Ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines
  • Organisational skills
  • A willingness to work unsociable hours and to be mobile (especially for retail programmes)
  • Strong customer focus

Getting experience

Securing a job in retail isn’t an easy option! Some of the Head Office roles in particular are as competitive as many other graduate schemes in other sectors, if not more so. Getting relevant experience in a retail setting will certainly help with future applications (in some cases it is essential) and will also help you to decide if this is the right path for you. There are plenty of possibilities for this sort of work.

  • Many of the retailers listed above provide formal, paid work experience placements, e.g. Asda, Dunhumby, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Check their websites for details of when you need to apply.
  • Target your local retailers/retail parks for Christmas, Easter or summer vacation work or use retail specific (online) recruitment agencies to find these opportunities. Retailers are exceptionally busy at these times of year and/or short staffed and are more likely to take on temporary, part-time staff. Bear in mind that you may need to apply 4-5 months in advance for these sorts of opportunities as retailers cannot afford to run the risk of being understaffed at such critical times and so do not leave recruitment to the last minute!
  • Check out the opportunities that we regularly advertise on CareerConnect.
  • Try some speculative approaches to retailers’ head office HR or graduate teams. If a retailer does not offer a formal scheme for students, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested in either offering some work shadowing or even some paid work for a particular project that needs doing. Be polite, enthusiastic and proactive in your approach and you could be successful.
  • Volunteer in your local charity shop or any other setting offering customer service.

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Getting a job

A few large retailers visit Oxford during Michaelmas & Hilary terms and increasingly they are attending the Oxford Careers Fair in October, but there are many more opportunities advertised on CareerConnect. Consider your areas of interest (e.g. food, fashion, sport, music or DIY) and the types of companies you would like to work for (e.g. clothing or grocery retailers) and visit their websites for advertised vacancies. Also use the sector specific recruitment sites listed in this briefing. Some retailers recruit all year round for positions, although many graduate schemes will have specific closing dates for applications in Michaelmas term or early in Hilary, with schemes often starting in the autumn.

Whilst many retailers offer graduate schemes, they are also continually advertising roles across their businesses. Jobs boards listed at the end of this briefing as well as the retailers’ own careers sites will reveal all kinds of opportunities – many aimed at entering the sector for the first time (early careers).

Postgraduate courses are available in Retail Management, but are not essential for entry into the sector and are not normally requested. Similarly, some Logistics Masters courses are available.  After some experience, there may be opportunities to gain professional qualifications, such as diplomas offered by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply or the Institute of Logistics and Transport Diploma.

Equality & positive action

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

Our resources


The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Marketing Uncovered, Andi Robertson
  • Fashion & Textiles, The Essential Careers Guide, Carol Brown
  • The A List – Guide to Who’s Who In Media, Marketing and Advertising 2016
  • Marketing Your Business, John Westwood
  • Marketing – An Introduction, Rosalind Masterson, David Pickton
  • Careers in Marketing, Wetfeet Insider Guides
This information was last updated on 06 September 2017.
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