To be successful in retail you'll require the right combination of skills and experience. Find out what qualifications you need and how to find a graduate job

The need for a degree will depend on what area of retail you'd like to get into. Not all jobs will require higher education qualifications but as the sector grows, and the demand for more highly-skilled employees increases, a degree in any discipline will stand you in good stead when applying for jobs.

You can enter retail/store management without a degree and work your way up to the top, although an undergraduate qualification in subjects such as accounting and finance, business studies or retail management may improve your chances. On the whole employers will accept graduates of any degree discipline into retail/store management roles.

The entry requirements for graduate buying roles vary from employer to employer. While it's possible to gain an entry-level buying job without a degree, many graduate schemes ask for an undergraduate qualification. A fashion or business-related degree will be useful to aspiring buyers, but graduates of any degree subject are accepted onto programmes.

It's a similar story with merchandising. With the right experience, you can start at the bottom and work your way up without a degree, although many graduate programmes ask for an undergraduate qualification. Due to the analytical and numerical nature of merchandising a degree in accountancy and finance, business and management, economics or maths and statistics will be useful. For visual merchandising roles a degree in art and design may be beneficial.

A degree is important for logistics and supply chain careers due to the increasingly complex nature of the roles. While many entry-level jobs and graduate schemes are open to all degree disciplines an undergraduate qualification in logistics, distribution management, transport or supply chains will improve your chances. Business, geography and science subjects may also be useful.

Postgraduate study is not usually required and very few employers specify the need for a Masters qualification. However, due to the competitive nature of head office roles a postgraduate degree could help you to stand out from the crowd. Aspiring buyers, merchandisers and logistics managers should consider their postgraduate options. An MBA in retail could also be useful for senior-level positions.

For information on entry requirements and relevant qualifications, see job profiles.

What skills do employers want?

Graduate recruiters in the retail sector require candidates with:

  • commercial awareness - you need a sound understanding of the organisation that you're applying to, the climate it's operating in, the challenges and issues it's facing, who its competitors are and what they are doing. To gain this knowledge follow companies of interest on social media, read company websites, news websites, retail industry press and journals;
  • a high level of customer focus - at the heart of all retail operations is the customer. To be successful in all roles you'll need to know your customer and be able to predict the products that they'll want and need;
  • a willingness to work unsociable hours and weekends - some retail jobs require you to work shift patterns and shop floor and store management roles will almost always require you to work weekends. In head office functions your workload will be heavy meaning that you may have to work long hours to meet demanding deadlines;
  • language skills - in head office roles your work could include communication with international partners, colleagues and suppliers. You may also be required to travel. Knowledge of more than one language will prove useful in these situations;
  • creativity and strategic thinking - retail is a fast-paced, constantly evolving industry and as such you'll need a creative mind-set to come up with new ideas to improve and progress your company and strategic thinking skills to solve any problems that arise;
  • good verbal communication skills - retailers are the most directly customer facing of all businesses and according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) will serve around 60 million customers a week, so strong communication, interpersonal and customer service skills are essential. Your communication skills will also come in useful when working with other departments and managing and leading a team;
  • leadership skills - especially relevant for management positions although retail employers of all roles will look for evidence of this at the recruitment stage. To build skills in this area get involved in key roles within clubs and societies at university;
  • the ability to work in a team - the majority of retail operations are a collaborative process with one team or department heavily relying on, or working closely with another. For example fashion designers work closely with buyers who in turn work closely with merchandisers. Area managers work alongside store managers who work day-to-day with shop floor staff. The ability to work as part of a team to get the job done is essential;
  • numerical ability and analytical skills - crucial for careers in business, finance and merchandising. You'll use such skills to forecast profits, analyse stock numbers and pricing etc.;
  • organisational skills and time management ability - no matter the role you perform within retail it's likely that you'll be working on multiple projects or addressing a number of issues at any one time, therefore the ability to organise your workload and manage your time effectively are vital;
  • some degree of IT literacy and the ability to handle electronic data - whatever area of retail you work in you'll need to be comfortable working with technology and electronic data to some degree. Whether inputing customer details to a computer on the shop floor, allocating stock to certain stores as a merchandiser or managing the effective distribution of goods from the warehouse. With the increase of omni-channel retailing you'll be expected to have a basic knowledge of desktop, tablet and mobile devices.

Where can I get work experience?

Work experience in the retail sector is easier to come by than in most other industries, with part time, flexible options so there should be no excuse for not having any on your CV.

Many graduates will have worked in the retail sector at some point during their studies or through the summer holidays; this valuable experience will be looked on favourably by recruiters. Many retailers prefer graduates to have frontline knowledge of their products and customers before moving into head office functions, so experience as a sales assistant is valuable for most graduate positions.

Large retail companies suggest that when looking for work experience opportunities the direct approach is best, enquiring in store and speaking to the branch manager to find out if a role is available.

Arcadia and Aldi both offer paid summer internship schemes or 12-month industrial placements, which you can apply to through their websites. These can be in store management, buying, merchandising or design. This often provides a route on to their graduate scheme.

ASOS offer year-long internships in areas such as buying, marketing, merchandising, garment technology, pattern cutting and finance. They also offer a six month design internship in womenswear.

Boots also provide summer internship and year in industry opportunities and Sainsbury's regularly add internship vacancies to their website.

To find work placements and internships in the retail sector, search for work experience.

How do I find a graduate job in retail?

There are a number of graduate schemes available in the sector covering all functions of retail. For example, Tesco runs around 15 different graduate schemes covering store management, distribution management and head office functions.

Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Arcadia and Boots also offer a range of graduate schemes. Programmes cover retail management, buying, merchandising, marketing, design, logistics and supply chain and finance.

Other supermarkets offering graduate opportunities include Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons.

You should look on individual company websites to find out what's on offer. Buying, merchandising and logistics graduate programmes often require a 2:1 degree, and most employers ask for experience of working in the sector.

You may find that if you have worked with a large retailer part time during your studies there are opportunities to train as a manager from within.

Joining a professional body can be helpful when looking for graduate roles. As a student member you'll have access to industry news and contacts. See the:

To find jobs and graduate schemes in the sector, search graduate jobs in retail.