Retailing is the practice of selling products to consumers, typically in small quantities at relatively low prices. According to the British Retail Consortium (www.brc.org.uk), the UK retail industry accounted for £278bn of sales in 2008, hiring over 2.8 million people - or 11% of the UK workforce - in the process.
Graduate career opportunities in the sector typically lie in one of two areas: either in a head office capacity directly with the outlet itself (be it a supermarket, electronics shop or online Store) or helping the companies that produce the retail stock (Fast Moving Consumer Goods or 'FMCG' firms) sell goods to stores and market their products to the consumer.
What do the Graduate Schemes entail?
Graduate schemes in the head office of retailers will typically involve a rotation around separate departments at the company, giving you an insight into the roles different teams play in providing a complete and efficient working operation. The most common departments to experience are Sales, Marketing, Logistics and Finance although stints in lesser known (but just as important) teams such as Human Resources, Public Affairs and Customer Insight can also occur. With each rotation normally lasting around six months, you will have the chance to gain a solid introduction into how a few different teams work before deciding at the end of the program on which department you want to work full-time.
FMCG companies typically embark you on a 'real' role following a much-shorter training period lasting between one and three months. With the companies that provide everything from your batteries to your washing-up liquid all operating in an extremely competitive marketplace, they are keen to get their graduates stuck in to selling and marketing their wares as quickly as possible. Depending on the focus of the scheme you've applied for, the day-job will involve working alongside the big retailers -selling your product, arranging promotions and keeping the client happy - or be more logistics orientated, ensuring that the stock gets from factory to shop-floor as smoothly as possible.
Which companies should I apply to?
Fourteen of the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers are retailers or FMCG firms; all of whom are well-known international institutions. The schemes at Tesco, Aldi, Procter and Gamble, L'Oreal and Unilever in particular are all very highly regarded because of the mix of formal training and project responsibility which they involve.
Before filling in the application form, make sure that the program is one that you would find interesting and enjoy - blanketing the world with your online application is rarely as effective as researching which companies you want to work for and making sure you know the key points of each program when outlining your motivations. For example, if you want to be very hands-on as opposed to working in head office then take a look at the Aldi grad scheme which trains you up to be a supermarket Area Manager. Or if you see your future as a marketing guru, then there can be few better places to start than at L'Oreal, who each year host a student competition dedicated to advertising and branding their products (www.brandstorm.loreal.com).
Alternatively, think about which companies and products you relate to most in deciding where to apply. Did you try to pass off Waitrose's finest as your own cooking on Valentine's Day? Why not apply to their grad scheme? Fancy telling the world about Nurofen's hangover curing power? Take a look at the graduate scheme of their parent company, Reckitt Benckiser.
What are the hours and pay like?
Pay will typically range from £22k-£28k, with small bonuses sometimes being offered for good performers (up to a maximum 10% of salary). The pay will almost always be the same for all members of the scheme in the first year and will not be negotiable. You can expect the salary to rise by a few thousand pounds a year so that you will end the scheme on some £28k-£35k.
Working for a 'real company' often guarantees a better work-life balance when compared to positions at consultancies or agencies as there will be fewer deadlines imposed upon your work. In reality most days will end somewhere between 6pm and 7pm, although - as with any graduate job - in busy times you may find your work travelling home with you at evenings and finding its way into the occasional weekend.
Future Career Prospects
In their graduates, employers are looking for their next generation of senior managerial talent and so will often have a set career progression in mind for top performers at the end of the scheme. This will either involve taking an advanced position in a certain team from where you can work your way up, or joining an 'in-house consultancy' team which looks to take a holistic view of the organization, tackling big issues that straddle different teams and making sure that the company is running as smoothly as possible.
However, a significant number of each graduate cohort will choose to leave at the end of their scheme, seeking perhaps the opportunity to play a part at a smaller firm which is less rigid and hierarchical in structure, or taking the opportunity to move to a consultancy which will allow them to broaden their experience beyond the retail sector. For the top performers in each scheme - those that have truly gone the extra mile and achieved more than their colleagues - demand from consultancies and agencies can be high as they look to bring on people who know how their clients work on the inside.
Also, with online sales predicted to exceed those on the high street within 20 years (according to www.computing.com), graduate opportunities are slowly starting to exist at companies such as amazon.com, ebay.com and at several price comparison websites. Whilst anyone interested in the mix of technology and retail should check the websites of these types of companies to see if they are advertising any ad-hoc junior roles, those who have completed a well known retail graduate scheme could find a world of opportunities open to them in future which are only starting to exist at the current time.
Overall, working in a retail or FMCG company can be a great way to start your career, putting a recognized brand on your CV whilst giving you exposure to established training methods and real-life project work. With demand never going to cease for retail goods, these graduate schemes offer you the chance to work in an inherently interesting sector, picking up skills and experiences which will stand you in good stead throughout your career.