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There seems to be a misleading perception that opportunities for career progression within the retail sector tend to be limited. After all, when most people consider retail as a career possibility, they often think of casual part-time roles in shops or working shifts, including weekends and irregular hours where pay isn't all that attractive. However, the retail sector is big business with so many facets to it and with many companies also trading globally and online as well, there are so many different career avenues to explore, many of which are behind the scenes.

Of course, it's not unheard of for people to start off in the most junior of roles on the shop floor and end up rising to store manager and positions which are even higher. Nevertheless, in order to rise to the very top within retail, the more qualifications you have, the better and with a suitable degree behind you, many organisations offer fast track management training schemes.

What Can Graduates Expect In Retail?
Many retail companies will offer graduates experience across a wide variety of disciplines. You might get to work in buying, merchandising, logistics, human resources, marketing and brand management, IT and business analysis.

On the other hand, you may know what area you wish to pursue in your career and have the necessary qualifications to enable you to specialise at an early stage. Fast track management schemes will usually comprise of both classroom based and on the job training which allows trainee recruits to gain industry wide and job specific knowledge very quickly.

What Type Of Degree Would I Need?
Unless you're going to be working in the likes of IT where a computing or technology related degree will be important, most of the major retail graduate recruiters will accept applications from any degree discipline in which you have attained a 2:2 or above. Some recruiters will also look at a minimum number of UCAS points as criteria for their recruitment process.

What Type Of Starting Salary Can I Expect As A Graduate In Retail?
Retail companies have recognised the need to attract the best graduates if they want their businesses to flourish and this is reflected in the starting salaries that they are prepared to offer graduates who are just starting out in their careers. Depending on the size of the company, graduate salaries can vary but a typical starting salary is usually somewhere between £17,000 and £26,000 in 2008. However, if you're specialising in a more analytical role, the salary is even higher with £25,000 to start with being the typical norm.

Retail is also an industry in which people can rise to the top very quickly and many graduate retail employees will obtain management status within less than 5 years. There are also often opportunities to become regional or divisional managers and to go overseas.

A Brief Overview Of Management Positions
To give you a very general idea of the kinds of roles you could be undertaking within a few years of beginning your career in retail, here are just a few examples of where your career might take you:

Department Manager - responsible for establishing and implementing policies, strategies, goals and procedures. You will be involved in employee supervision and development, reviewing inventories and sales performance and co-ordinating policies with other departments

Buyer - responsible for selecting and ordering of merchandise and sometimes planning sales promotions

Planner - responsible for the distribution of goods and planning and controlling inventories to maximise both sales and profit.

Other articles on will go into greater depth about some of the specific roles you could pursue in retail and there will also be information about other courses you can take, apart from a degree course, should you wish to progress within the industry.

It must be said, however, that to progress in the retail sector, you need to be tenacious and also very flexible. To stay on top of their game, those companies operating within the retail sector need to be able to keep ahead of the competition so you must be prepared for innovation as retail is fast paced and constantly evolving to meet consumers' ever changing demands.

What Careers are Available in Retail?
When considering a career in retail, there are so many different types of job available but the retail sector as a whole can broadly be broken down into the following categories:

  • Store Operations
  • Finance and Administration
  • Marketing
  • Buying
  • Customer Service Call Centres
  • Human Resources/Training
  • Information Technology

Store Operations
The vast majority of jobs in retail come under the umbrella of store operations. From actually selling goods out on the shop floor to ensuring that the store runs smoothly, you might start off your career as a part-time floor assistant and work your way up to department or store manager or even to director of operations.

Finance And Administration
Here you’ll be working with figures and could be focused on paying the staff’s wages, to ensuring that you find money to run the business or to make acquisitions as well as making financial budgetary projections for the future. You could be working within the purchase or sales ledger departments either ensuring that you keep on top of customers who owe you money (credit control) and that your company itself is paying its bills on time (purchase ledger).

The marketing department is responsible for developing brands and by raising customer awareness and building brand loyalty through a range of advertising methods such as on TV or radio, in print or online and via in store promotions.

This is one of the key areas of retail which is essential if you’re going to run a successful business. At its simplest, it could simply be the movement of goods from your stock room to the shop floor but a career in logistics also encompasses the handling, the movement and the storage of goods through a whole variety of means including transporting goods by rail, road, sea and air.

The main role of a buyer within a retail career is to successfully purchase merchandise or materials to manufacture a particular range of merchandise whilst ensuring that you can buy it at a competitive price and that you’re able to provide customers with what they want, when they want it and at a price they can afford.

Sales and Customer Service Call Centres
If you’re working in a retail sales or customer service call centre, the main focus of your job will either be on the sale of goods and services over the phone and/or providing information and advice to customers as well as dealing with customer complaints. These environments are often target driven and you may also work in an administrative capacity instead where you’ll be responsible for ensuring that customers’ records are kept up to date.

Human Resources/Training
This involves devising and implementing policies relating to the effective use of your staff as well as their own training and career development alongside things such as drawing up rotas and holiday rosters and dealing with disciplinary matters.

Information Technology
These days in all organisations, all of the other job areas could not function as easily if they weren’t all underpinned by IT systems. You may be working on installation and ensuring that back up systems and security are taken care of. On the other hand, you may end up working as a software designer, creating new programs to meet operational expectations.

Within each of these sub-categories, there are still plenty of diverse jobs and careers to pursue. Each subcategory requires various different skills, levels of qualification and different personal qualities.

Working Hours in the Retail Sector
The retail sector has undergone a major transformation when it comes to working hours over recent years since the introduction of 24 hour shopping and the opening of many stores on Sundays. However, it’s impossible to make sweeping generalisations here as 24 hour stores still represent only a small proportion of the number of stores in total which are open around the clock and not all stores open on Sundays.

The Pros and Cons Of Working Hours In The Retail Sector
There are many people who love working in retail because of the flexibility it gives them when it comes to their working hours. However, this is mainly the case when it comes to those who work on the shop floor for the most part. Although, shop floor workers can find full-time positions, it has to be said that the vast majority of them only work part-time but this suits many people, especially where the retail store offers flexibility. This is crucial for the likes of parents who can only work during school hours after they’ve dropped their children off at school and who also need to leave work before school finishes in order to pick their children up.

The working hours are also attractive for the likes of younger people who may still be at school themselves or if they’re students looking to obtain an income whilst at university as the nature of the retail sector allows them to work during evenings and at weekends which is when they have more availability.

However, it must also be pointed out that the likes of evening shifts and working at weekends, particularly on Sundays, doesn’t suit everybody and some people have problems obtaining a work-life balance as a result of working evenings and weekends, especially if they have a partner who works Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. Also, if they have children and are asked to work evenings and weekends, it can also be very difficult to find quality time to share with their children.

Therefore, the trend towards the 24 hour, 7 days a week consumer society presents a double-edged sword in that workers opinions are often divided. For some, they welcome the flexibility it offers them (which might include the option of working overtime) whilst for others, they’d prefer to work fixed daytime hours on weekdays.

Is It Possible To Find A 9-5 Position In Retail?
In head office roles and other positions away from the shop floor, for example, there is a lot more scope for people to enjoy a career in retail which is more akin to the general office norm of 9-5, Monday to Friday. What is important to remember here, however, is that there may be occasions where you’re asked to work later than usual if something important needs to be done. For example, if there’s a rush within a finance department to prepare end of the financial year tax figures or a new product launch is nearing its deadline and there are still issues to finalise in the marketing department.

Because most of these positions will be salary based as opposed to the shop floor where you’re likely to be paid by the hour, you might sometimes find that you can be working well into the evening or even having to take work home with you occasionally, in order to meet a specific target or deadline for no extra pay.

The retail sector is well aware of the challenges the industry faces, especially when it comes to staff retention and turnover, particularly on the shop floor. Although, it continues to try to accommodate things like flexible working hours, working from home occasionally for office based retail positions, job sharing and staff who have young children to care for, there is still much more to be done if it wants to have a much broader appeal.

Career Progression In the Retail Sector
Not everybody who works in retail necessarily wants to progress into management. Obviously, career advancement and management in particular, might mean better pay but with that comes an increase in responsibility too which doesn’t suit everybody. However, if you want to progress into retail management, there are certain things you should be looking to achieve on top of having any necessary qualifications which you might also need to possess.

Speak Regularly with Your Boss
It’s certainly true that if you demonstrate good working practices at work, you may be identified as a potential future manager but you do need to speak up for yourself too and let your boss know about your career aspirations. Discuss your goals with your boss in any regular one-to-ones you have with them and take on board any advice they may give you with regards to how you might achieve them more quickly. Ask them if you can take on more responsibility. Your boss may not want to overwork you but if you feel you could be contributing much more, tell them so and ask if there’s any additional work that you could be doing.

Perhaps, you could also ask them if there are any opportunities to increase your skills and experience by doing additional work within another department. Remember the more skills and exposure you get in other aspects of the retail business, the more value you’re going to present to the company. Therefore, if they feel you’re valuable, this will lead to greater career development.

Take the Opportunity to Fine Tune Your People Skills
Retail is a sector in which people can go a long way if they have effective communication skills and are able to relate well to people. Therefore, practice your people skills whenever you can. Become a good listener and take on tasks such as making business presentations, for example. Seize any opportunity you may get to lead a group of people – perhaps, if your boss is going on holiday you could offer to step in, for example and learn how to relate well with you’re your colleagues and management. Networking at conferences is also something you should learn how to be good at – ‘shrinking violets’ have no place in retail management.

Be Creative and Proactive with Your Ideas
Many people wrongly assume that you need to be a ‘yes man’ all the time if you want to climb up the greasy pole into retail management. That’s not the case. Retail companies don’t simply want sheep or ‘followers’ as managers, they want people who are creative and innovative and not afraid to suggest different ways of doing things. So, look out for ways you can improve things and don’t be afraid to put these ideas to your boss as it will make him or her look good too.

Find a Mentor
A mentor can help somebody go a long way inside a company and this may not always be your boss. Perhaps, you will have a boss who’s supportive and who will mention your accomplishments and achievements in all the right places and who will be there to offer you advice. However, you may also find you have a boss who sees you as a threat to their own job. Therefore, it’s important you find yourself a mentor who has spotted your potential and will be there to support and guide you and will keep you abreast of possible openings which will help with your career development.

Sell Yourself But Keep Learning
Nobody likes a bighead who’s constantly droning on about what they’ve achieved but there is certainly no harm in quietly pointing to your accomplishments at the right time and to the right people who are in a position of power. After all, they may not be aware of what you’ve achieved so a subtle mention in the right ‘ears’ at an appropriate time is perfectly acceptable. However, it’s also important to keep your feet on the ground and to keep learning. Stay on top of trends that are affecting your industry and ensure that you learn any new skills that might be needed as a result.

Protect Your Reputation
To progress within retail management, it’s also important that you not only build your reputation but that you protect it too. Therefore, make sure that you’re always dependable, co-operative and professional in all you are asked to do.

Written eff Durham