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Stacking up experience

Published: Saturday, 13 November 2004   Category:

With 250,000 graduates joining the jobs market each year, some have to make a career start where they least expect it - as Tom Barlow reports - Fancy a career stacking shelves?

Probably not. But before you turn your nose up at a career in retail, bear in mind that the industry offers graduates much more than a life on the shop floor. Not that you might have any choice. Doom-and-gloom merchants warn that with over a quarter of a million new graduates flooding the job market each year, many university leavers will start their working lives in non-graduate roles at venues such as supermarkets.

"If you analyse the work destinations of graduates guess what they're doing? They're shelf-stacking," says Terry Jones of the University of London Careers Service. "They land up in retail as a fill-in to pay off some debts and to them it looks like a failure, but that's the problem with graduate careers - unless it's investment banking or management consulting, everything else is second best. I'd argue that retail is as challenging as any career."

Thanks to such prejudices, one of the hardest selling jobs for retailers is to attract graduates to their profession full-time. Yet on paper it shouldn't be difficult. Retail is huge. "Graduates ask 'isn't retail just stacking shelves?'" says Raj Varma, head of graduate recruitment for Asda, the supermarket chain recently gobbled up by US giant Wal-Mart. "But there are so many roles: everything from buying shop sites through to managing the accounts, HR and supply chain."

Retail is all about thinking big. For starters, its annual turnover is a whopping £260bn. Whether it's fashion or food, most stores are multi-million pound businesses (often managed by graduates), and once you reach the head office roles, the numbers just get bigger. Want some responsibility? As a graduate buyer you might be in charge of a range (dairy products, beer, jeans, you name it) worth £150 million per annum.

Jane Whiteley, of the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), agrees that retail's unsexy image - typified by cash registers and Curly from Coronation Street - is a little unfair. "Alongside the variety of roles, retail has opportunities in all areas of the country which is important if you want to work where you studied. A lot of the major retailers such as Tesco are international, too."

Upon joining, graduates either specialise after a couple of years of store management, or are recruited directly into head office functions. Asda takes on graduates into six schemes including finance, logistics and IT. "I did store management for three years," explains Raj. "Then I moved to head office and into buying (appliances such as kettles), then on to PlayStation games, and now human resources. You're encouraged to move around."

Yet despite all its variety, careers advisor Terry Jones still finds retail tricky to sell. "Most students will say: 'I didn't become a graduate to work in a shop!'" he explains. "You talk about the head office functions - like buying or IT - but the bulk of the jobs are still in stores. I tell them this is a people business: you're going to hire and train a heck of a lot of people. "An even lesser known function is logistics. But students don't know what the hell logistics is. You tell them it's about getting supplies to the right place in the right time, but again it doesn't turn them on - even though people will tell you it's a really exciting job."

For the prospective graduate, retail also offers more goodies than you might imagine. Alongside the travel and the training, you often won't need a specific degree or outrageous academic achievements to enter. Although the starting salaries might not blow your mind, the rate of progression to very high income is rapid, argues Jones.

Yet retail isn't for everyone. Amanda Wood joined a retail graduate scheme with Marks & Spencer in commercial, finance and then human resources, before retraining as a careers advisor for the University of Manchester. "If you're the type of person who enjoys working under pressure you'll like it," she says. "Because you manage very large teams, often you'll come into work thinking you're going to do a certain task and you end up doing loads of other things you didn't expect. Also the hours can be tough: working bank holidays, evenings or weekends is common." Amanda explains that for the competitive head office roles (fashion buying is top of the list), you may need some specialised knowledge or higher academic grades before you apply. "At selection you'll be expected to have thought about the roles and how your skills match the needs of the job," she says. And although your dream job in retail may be a long way away from the shop floor, don't forget that the customer still comes first. "You'll be asked about ways you'd like to move the stores forward," says Amanda. "Retail is all about ideas, initiative, and creative thought. It's about being able to manage and motivate teams. But ultimately, everything comes back to customer satisfaction."

Joseph Price, 25, graduated from Newcastle University with a law degree in 2001. He works as an assistant merchandiser for Dorothy Perkins, part of the Arcadia Group. "I really wanted to work in retail. I started in distribution for six months, which is quite a common entry point for graduates. Then I went into merchandising. I do knitware but have moved every nine months. Before this I was on jeans and casual bottoms. "I like the variety. With merchandising you're not only deciding when to bring in stock, but the quantity of it. You do a lot of analysis on which clothes sell and which ones don't. There's a fair bit of number crunching, but also lots of interaction with the buyers - you give them a budget and guidance on what to spend it on. It's like running your own business. You make decisions that can affect what's happening in the store. It's also very sociable and good fun."

Simon Knight, 25, graduated from Cambridge last year with a degree in engineering. He now works as fresh promotions leader for supermarket chain, Sommerfield. "My first role was all about distribution - the warehouses and the lorries. We modelled financial costs for all the activities. You come in on a general scheme but you can choose where you go. I did a six-month tour of the company, learning about all the areas. I worked a bit on the shop floor, long enough to appreciate the concerns that customers have. "In my current job I look at fresh goods promotions - like fruit and vegetables. We make sure waste is kept to a minimum and availability is maintained. It's a logistics role: fresh products are restrained by their shelf life. We're talking about huge volumes of food and we're trying to predict what the customer will want. If we get it wrong, the food has to go in the bin because it goes out of date. I like the challenge."

Ben Crowther, 27, is a senior brand manager for Sainsbury's. He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1999 with a degree in business studies and joined the company as a buyer. "I'd done some supply chain work experience at university. Later I applied for the graduate buying scheme. I spent six months as a trainee buyer in the non-foods area (Christmas gifts, fireworks, Mothers' Day and Valentines' Day ranges). "I was meant to become a buyer, but I was offered a secondment to the chief executive and did that for two years: everything from managing his office to helping prepare speeches. Then I applied for a role in as brand manager in health foods, marketing our 'Be Good To Yourself' range, which is a £200m sub-brand with about 400 products. "Recently, I've been promoted to 'brand guardian' in our marketing team, managing brand identity across the business. I love the chance to move around in retail. It's incredibly competitive and dynamic. We have 13m customers through our doors every week - so a passion for customers is vital."

Source: Saturday November 13, 2004 Tom Barlow The Guardian

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