With its variety of career opportunities and different entry routes you could soon join the three million workers employed in the fast-paced retail sector

The retail industry is vital to the UK economy; in 2016 alone it generated £358billion worth of retail sales. It is the largest private sector employer with approximately 290,315 bricks and mortar retail outlets in the UK.

But what is retail? The Oxford English Dictionary describes retail as 'the sales of goods to the public for use or consumption, rather than for resale.'

Whether you're aiming for a career in a customer-facing role or a position in head office, the sector has plenty of opportunities, from dealing with day-to-day customer care and generating sales to influencing trends and making strategic business decisions.

What areas of retail can I work in?

Employment opportunities can be found in:

  • buying
  • customer services
  • loss prevention and security
  • merchandising and allocation
  • online retail
  • retail management
  • visual merchandising
  • warehouse, distribution, logistics and supply chain.

You could choose to work within a specific area of retail such as:

  • entertainment
  • fashion
  • food
  • general merchandise
  • health and beauty
  • home
  • sport and leisure
  • technology.

With specialist skills and qualifications you could find work in particular roles such as jeweller, dispensing optician or fashion designer.

Opportunities are also available in the finance, human resources (HR), marketing and IT departments of retail companies.

For examples of job roles in the sector, see jobs in retail.

Who are the main graduate employers?

Clothing retail:

  • Arcadia Group (includes Burton Menswear, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Topman, Topshop, Wallis)
  • Debenhams
  • H&M
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Next
  • Primark
  • River Island
  • TJX Europe (includes TK Maxx and HomeSense).

Online shopping:

  • Amazon
  • ASOS
  • Boohoo
  • eBay
  • Missguided
  • N Brown Group (includes Jacamo and JD Williams)
  • Net-a-Porter
  • Shop Direct (includes Littlewoods.com and Very.co.uk).

Supermarkets:

  • Aldi
  • Asda
  • Lidl
  • Morrisons
  • Sainsbury's
  • Tesco
  • Waitrose.

The four biggest retailers in the UK are Tesco, Sainsbury's, Wal-Mart (Asda) and Morrisons meaning that the industry is dominated by supermarkets, closely followed by department stores such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer.

Graduates can also find opportunities with:

  • Argos
  • Boots
  • Dixons Carphone (includes Carphone Warehouse, Currys PC World)
  • Dunelm
  • Kingfisher (includes B&Q and Screwfix)
  • Matalan
  • Signet Group (includes Ernest Jones and H Samuel jewellers)
  • Wilko.

According to the Guardian UK 300 Survey 2017/18 the top ten graduate retail employers are:

  • Amazon
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Arcadia Group
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Aldi
  • Boots
  • Lidl
  • Next
  • TK Maxx.

Asda, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Net-a-Porter and Morrisons narrowly missed out on a top ten listing.

When researching potential employers it's useful to know which organisations are doing well. According to analysis carried out by Retail Week in 2017 some of the fastest growing retailers in the UK include:

  • Boux Avenue
  • Childrensalon
  • Farfetch
  • Green Man Gaming
  • Loaf
  • Made.com
  • Matchesfashion.com
  • Missguided
  • NotOnTheHighStreet.com
  • Oak Furniture Land.

What's it like working in the sector?

Graduates entering the retail sector can expect:

  • a varied working environment. Work settings can include local retail branches, head offices and distribution warehouses
  • according to The Graduate Market in 2017 report from High Fliers the retail sector pays some of the highest graduate starting salaries, with an average figure of £30,000. However, some retail employers pay considerably more than this. For example, Aldi's Area Manager Programme at £44,000, which rises incrementally to £73,450 after four years. Lidl's Graduate Trainee Area Manager Scheme comes in second with a starting salary of £40,000
  • overseas travel. This largely depends on your role and your employer. International travel is more likely for those in head office functions
  • many roles based on shift work. This can mean unsociable hours and weekend work, as retailers are often open seven days a week with some operating 24 hours a day
  • part-time work and career breaks. These may be less common in head office roles
  • a fast-paced, pressured work environment, which will be focused on generating sales and making profit
  • benefits such as company cars and health, pension and lifestyle packages when working in head office roles. The majority of retail workers also enjoy company discounts.

To find out more about typical salaries and working conditions in your chosen career, see job profiles.

What qualifications do I need?

Not all jobs 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.

You can enter retail management, buying and merchandising without a degree and work your way up, although an undergraduate qualification will significantly improve your chances. Business studies and retail management degrees will be beneficial if you're trying to get into store manager roles, a fashion or business-related qualification will be useful for aspiring buyers, while a Bachelors in accountancy and finance, business and management, economics or maths and statistics will be useful to retail merchandisers. For visual merchandising jobs a degree in art and design may be beneficial.

Logistics and supply chain careers are open to graduates of all degree disciplines, although an undergraduate qualification in logistics, distribution management, transport or supply chains will give you a better chance at securing a job.

Postgraduate study is not essential and 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. An MBA in retail could also be useful for senior-level positions.

Can I do a retail apprenticeship?

If you're seeking an alternative to university there are a number of retail apprenticeships on offer.

Apprenticeships allow you to gain experience in a particular role and earn at least the National Minimum Wage (£3.50 per hour), all while working towards intermediate, advanced, higher or degree qualifications.

On a retail apprenticeship you could train as a:

  • visual merchandiser
  • senior sales assistant
  • style adviser
  • team leader
  • department/store manager.

Retail companies running apprenticeship programmes include:

  • Aldi
  • Co-op
  • DFS
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Specsavers
  • Superdrug
  • Vison Express.

Find out how to apply for an apprenticeship.

What are the key issues in the retail industry?

2017 has seen retail giant Next suffer its first fall in profits since the recession and high street brand Jaeger sold to Edinburgh Wollen Mill after going into administration.

Fashion retail sales have experienced a dip due to consumers changing spending habits. Rather than spending their money on clothes and shoes people are now spending their cash on leisure activities such as eating out and going on holiday.

Employers are also feeling the financial pinch thanks to the 30p increase in the National Living Wage (NLW), which increased from £7.20 to £7.50 in April 2017. Every retail worker aged 25 or over will now earn a minimum of £7.50 an hour. This recent rise has also put employers under pressure to lift salaries company-wide, instead of just for those who are low paid. Retailers now have to figure out how to meet the extra costs of the higher wage bill. This could mean increasing their product prices or cutting costs from other areas of the business.

However it's not all doom and gloom. With social media and smartphones feeding the demand for instant gratification the retail industry has seen a shift in shopping trends. Rather than spending their money in bricks and mortar shops consumers are now shopping online with 'clicks'. The stats back this up - online retail sales grew by 15% in 2016 with online retailers such as ASOS, Boohoo and Misguided stealing sales from their high-street rivals, making electronic retailing a serious career consideration for new graduates.

Discover how get a job in online retail.

Find out more