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How to get a career in retail

If you're considering a career in retail, read on for our guide to the industry and how to get ahead.

Career in retail

The UK might have been through some painful belt-tightening in recent years, with many households experiencing a squeeze on disposable incomes, but the retail sector is still one of the powerhouses of the economy. In 2015, retail generated an impressive £339bn worth of sales and kept 2.9 million people in jobs, making it the country's largest private sector employer.

While it's true that half of all retail staff work part-time, and almost a third are under the age of 25, there's more to retail than minimum-wage shop work. For those who are bright and hard-working, the sector offers some fantastic career opportunities.

If you're considering a career in retail, read on for our guide to the industry and how to get ahead.

Apprenticeships in retail

Of the 2.9 million people who work in retail, 18% are employed as managers or in other senior positions – which amounts to 522,000 posts – and thanks to apprenticeships and graduate schemes, there are more opportunities than ever to develop a well-paid career.

Retail is one sector that's already got on board with the idea of apprenticeships, with plenty of big-name firms offering structured training programmes for school leavers, giving young people the opportunity to earn while they learn.

And it's not just shelf-stacking and checkout operating. For example, the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) – which owns Waitrose and Ocado as well as the famous department store chain – offers a selection of different apprenticeship schemes to serve different parts of its business. Along with retail, JLP also offers schemes in IT, goods-vehicle driving, and textiles production.

While some regard apprenticeships as "inferior" to getting a degree and gaining a place on a graduate scheme, JLP offers high-flying IT students the opportunity to combine work with study as an apprentice, and take a four-year degree provided by Queen Mary University of London.

German supermarket chain Aldi recruited 600 apprentices this year, and Regional Managing Director Ruth Doyle explained that some would go on to management positions.

She said: 'Many graduates from our apprenticeship scheme achieve a management position on completion of the three-year course, and successful candidates gain a Level 3 qualification in management.'

Graduate schemes

The big retailers all have long-established graduate recruitment programmes, which are still the main route for those seeking a high-flying career in retail.

Competition to get a place on these schemes can be high and companies are discerning about who they take, but if accepted you should get a fantastic, varied introduction to the world of retail.

The John Lewis Partnership says that their graduate schemes include 'an element of core skills development, the purpose of which is to give all graduates experience across all areas of the Partnership, exposure to a variety of senior business leaders, opportunities to work with different individuals and the chance to develop a strong graduate community'.

And it adds: 'Beyond that, each scheme provides more specific experience, specialist or generalist, as well as technical training and support for any relevant professional qualifications.'

Graduates landing a place on Aldi's programme are given an intensive one-year-long introduction to the business, becoming fully fledged Area Managers in their second year with the firm.

Ruth Doyle of Aldi explains: 'Our Area Managers are responsible for managing between three and four stores and exceptional Area Managers may have the opportunity to become Store Operation Directors or move into different areas of the business such as corporate buying or logistics.

'Our Area Managers also may have the opportunity to take international secondments in Aldi businesses across the world such as Australia and America to expand their knowledge and experience of the business.'

What employers look for

While formal entry requirements differ greatly for apprenticeships and graduate trainee courses, there are key personal qualities sought by employers in retail at any level. Namely good communication, team working, and excellent customer service skills. Spending some time on the shop floor and having an understanding of the wider operations of the business also helps.

Ruth says: 'Candidates must show a real passion for retail, and the ability to work independently and as part of a team. It is important for both roles that candidates display a positive, "can-do" attitude to tackle day-to-day issues and deliver results.

'Retail careers require candidates to be adaptable to change, so they must thrive off working in fast-paced, busy environments.'

If you're looking for a graduate role, it's usually expected that you'll have at least a 2:1 degree along with strong A-level results (or equivalent). Aldi also asks that you have a driving licence.

Apprenticeship recruiting is more about attitude, commitment and soft skills, although many employers do seek GCSE grade C or higher in maths and English.

What you can earn

Pay in retail ranges from minimum wage, £6.70 per hour, which is also where most apprentices start, though you're likely to see pay climb over the course of the apprenticeship period.

Assistant managers are likely to earn £17,000 to £23,000, while store managers can expect a salary of £20,000 to £30,000.

The Aldi graduate scheme outlined above pays £42,000 and comes with private healthcare after six months and a fully expensed Audi A4 company car. Those who successfully complete the scheme can earn up to £70,000 within four years.