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Retailing is an important industry, employing around 1 in 9 workers in the UK. Retail can offer young people the chance to progress along their career path very quickly. A wide variety of opportunities exists, with jobs ranging from those requiring very few qualifications, to those at degree level.

Organisations in the retail sector range from stores, which help people purchase high tech goods, to those selling convenience foods. Modern retail offers a wide range of career paths and opportunities to progress to management positions. This explains some of the many opportunities available at various levels.

When we are out shopping, few of us stop to think about all the work that goes on behind the scenes in any shop or large store. The whole retail process starts with people responsible for coming up with the concepts and design of a store.

Staff have to make sure that the goods and services we want are there when we want them and are easy to find and to pay for. Every shop or chain of stores has its own image and its own way of meeting the needs of customers.

Some things to think about

  • retail is a people driven industry so you need to enjoy contact with the public. You may have to be patient with demanding customers

  • there are clear training routes in larger companies

  • most shops allow staff to buy products at discounted prices

  • there are lots of jobs in retailing which are behind the scenes, from warehousing and quality control to marketing

  • working in retail can give you the chance to work with products you are interested in, be it clothes, books or music

  • large stores may have good staff facilities, for example a restaurant or gym

  • weekend work is often required but you will have time off in the week instead. As shop opening hours get longer, you may have to work early/late shift

  • there are plenty of chances for part-time work particularly to cover busy times or unsocial hours. Temporary and seasonal jobs are also available

  • because of the nature of some jobs, the work can be physically tiring; many staff will spend a lot of time on their feet

Types of store

Multiples - shops like WH Smith, Topshop and Marks and Spencer – have branches all over the country.

Department stores – such as Harrods and Debenhams – may be independent single shop stores, or stores within larger groups. They are generally found in large towns and cities.

Supermarkets – such as Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury's have branches all over the country, but other chains are more regional. There are managers in the biggest stores specialising in either food or non food items, with a general sales manager at the head.

Small, independent shops cater for a variety of specialised and general needs, serving local communities. In specialist shops staff need to know a lot about the products they sell, and the services they can provide.

Going into retail is sometimes a way of carrying over an interest or hobby into your working life, for example.

  • If you like using your hands, you may enjoy working in a florist‘s or a bakery

  • If fashion goods appeal, jewelry, cosmetics and clothes shops may interest you

  • If you are keen on music, books, sport or computers, there are stores specialising in these interests

  • If you like helping people in a practical way, how about a DIY shop or builders' merchant

Apart from working in an independent shop, owning and running your own shop could be a real possibility.

This is a growing area of work. The jobs range from those involved in designing concepts and marketing to those in ICT, buying, stock control and delivery. As well as organisations that deal only with online sales, many traditional retailers offer online shopping. TV shopping channels are another way of selling to the public. You may only see the presenter, but someone has to select, purchase and keep stocks of the goods shown.

Different roles

Supervisors and managers

They need to be enthusiastic, able to communicate with all sorts of people and have the ability to lead a team. Managers have to be commercially aware in many ways they are running their own business. Hours may be long and shops are usually at their busiest at weekends. In a small shop, the manager is likely to be responsible for all areas of the business including ordering and paying for stock, payroll and other paperwork, as well as working on the shop floor alongside a few other members of staff.

Sales assistants

Sales assistants are the public face of retailing. They are the ones who have direct contact with the customers, and as such they represent the store. They need to be enthusiastic, to enjoy working with people, and to know about the things they sell. Many sales assistants work part-time.

Assistants may be trained to work on the customer services desk, dealing with enquiries, orders, returned goods, complaints etc.

Depending on the store, the work can involve:

  • giving information or advice about products

  • helping customers to make the right choice

  • wrapping and packing goods

  • taking payment, including cash, cheques, debit and credit cards

  • arranging displays of goods inside the shop

  • check stock levels, fetching goods from the stock room and where required, reordering stock

  • ensuring that the shop floor is attractive to customers

Multiples have branch managers responsible for the day to day running of their store. They usually work to sales targets set by head office and keep a close watch on sales figures. There are also area and regional managers with overall responsibility for the stores in their area or region. They may be based in one area or travel daily, making regular visits to stores in the region. Within a large store, departmental managers are responsible for a particular department. There are usually other managers with specific responsibilities.

Shelf fillers or replenishment assistants

They are mostly employed in large shops and supermarkets. They check the shelves and record what items need collecting from the stockroom perhaps by electronic scanning. They fill the shelves, often at night, and make sure the correct price is displayed. They are also responsible for cleaning the shelves and tidying away cartons and other packaging and helping customers find things. Many shelf fillers are part-time.

Checkout operators

They work mainly on the till points in stores and supermarkets, recording the cost of the goods onto a cash register as they come down a conveyor belt usually using a scanner to read the bar code. They make sure that the customer is happy with their purchases, sell or promote other products as appropriate, take payments, deal with customer loyalty cards or money off vouchers and pack some goods in bags for customers.

Other job opportunities

There are other people working behind the scenes for large retail companies, contributing to the success of the business. There are job opportunities at managerial and support level.

Buying – for retailers to sell, they need goods! Buyers seek out the best deals and buy suitable merchandise. Usually, this means finding good suppliers. Buyers need to know what will sell well in their area as mistakes can be costly.

Merchandising – working with the buyer to get the right goods into the right stores. Visual merchandisers deal with the physical layout and promotion of goods, ensuring that goods are displayed to their best advantage.

Marketing – having the right goods at the right price and promoting them.

Human resources – dealing with recruitment and selection, wage and reward policies, grievances etc.

Training and development – delivering training, keeping staff up-to-date with new developments and producing training programmes.

Finance – the planning and control of the financial side of the business, setting budgets, targets etc.

Warehouse and stock control – making sure that there are sufficient goods to stock the shelves, without holding surplus stock which may be perishable, or taking up space.

Distribution – dealing with the transporting of goods by land, sea or air.

ICT – computer systems are widely used to keep track of goods and sales and for planning. With the growing importance of e-retailing, ICT specialists are also involved in developing systems and websites for online shipping.

Personal shopping – some large department stores employ a personal shopper who devotes attention to just one customer at a time. A personal shopper will show the customer around, suggest items suitable for their needs and other advice. Retail experience and good people skills are required. A related job is gift list adviser, helping people to draw up and monitor their list usually for wedding presents. You need a good knowledge of what goods are in stock. There may also be job opportunities in many other areas such as security, legal work, food technology and store design.

There are no set minimum entry requirements for sales assistant and checkout operator work. Some employers may ask for particular grades at GCSE. A smart appearance and good communication skills are important.

Employees can work towards NVQs in different aspects of retail work through assessment in the workplace.

Some firms encourage staff to attend college part-time to gain qualifications in management and/or retailing. Some employees take distance learning courses leading to nationally recognised qualifications.

There are also some specialist qualifications offered by bodies, which represent particular types of shops, such as those in pet store management offered by the Pet Care Trust. 

The Fashion Retail Academy in London offers a mix of academic and work based learning, leading to a level 2 or level 3 Diploma in fashion retail.

Many employers run their own in-house management training schemes. Entry requirements vary but enthusiasm and some relevant work experience are usually sought. Most large organisations offer graduate management training programmes lasting from 1 to 3 years. Any degree subject may be acceptable, but degrees, and possibly HNDs or foundation degrees, in general or specialist retail management (for example food or fashion retail management) are useful. Many organisations also offer management training programmes for applicants with A levels or equivalent, including appropriate BTEC National qualifications.

Adults: Applicants who do not hold the stated course entry requirements may be considered on an individual basis.

Prospects and pay

In many retail companies, if you show the right potential, there are good opportunities for early promotion, for example responsibility for a particular range of products or for supervising staff. Experienced sales staff may also move to work in customer services, dealing with complaints, returned goods etc. Managers will probably need to move to larger stores to gain promotion. If they prove successful, there may be opportunities to progress to area and regional manager posts.

Pay for sales staff may start at around £10,000, perhaps rising up to £18,000 for supervisors. There may be other benefits, such as generous staff discounts, subsidised canteens, commission and bonuses. Graduate management trainees may start on £18,000 to £23,000. Top managers can earn £18,000+.

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