The UK retail industry is vital to the economy and provides a livelihood to over three million people. Find out about top retail employers, what it's like to work in the sector and the skills you'll need to succeed

In August 2021 retail sales in the UK totalled £7.8 billion per week - but what is retail?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes retail as 'the sale of goods to the public for use or consumption, rather than for resale.' It encompasses shops, department stores, supermarkets, market stalls, door-to-door salespeople and internet retailers.

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 jewellerdispensing optician or fashion designer.

Head office opportunities are also available in the financehuman 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:

  • H&M
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Next
  • Primark
  • River Island
  • TJX Europe (includes TK Maxx and HomeSense).

Online shopping:

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

Supermarkets:

  • Aldi
  • Asda
  • Co-Op
  • Farmfoods
  • Iceland
  • Lidl
  • Morrisons
  • Sainsbury's
  • Tesco
  • Waitrose.

The four biggest retailers in the UK are Tesco, Sainsbury's, Walmart (Asda) and Morrisons meaning that supermarkets dominate the industry.

Graduates can also find opportunities with:

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

According to the Guardian UK 300 Survey 2020/21 the top ten graduate retail employers are:

  • Amazon
  • ASOS
  • Apple
  • Arcadia
  • Aldi
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Boots
  • TJX Europe
  • Tesco
  • Lidl.

Asda, Co-op, Next, Sainsburys and Morrisons also featured on the list.

What's it like working in the retail sector?

Graduates entering the retail sector can expect:

  • a varied working environment. Work settings can include local retail branches, head offices and distribution warehouses
  • the retail sector pays some of the highest graduate starting salaries, with an average of £30,000. However, some retail employers pay considerably more. For example, Aldi's Area Manager Programme pays £44,000, which rises incrementally to £79,040 after five years
  • many roles based on shift work. This can mean unsociable hours and weekend work, as retailers are often open seven days a week - some operate 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 university 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. Find out how to get a job in buying and merchandising.

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. Discover why you should consider a career in logistics and supply chain management.

If you’d like to work in e-commerce discover how to get a job in online retail.

To become a dispensing optician you'll need to pass a three-year course, approved by the General Optical Council. Aspiring customer services managers will benefit from a degree in business or consumer studies.

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.

What skills do I need to work in the retail sector?

To stand out to employers you'll need to demonstrate a number of sought-after skills such as:

  • commercial awareness
  • brand/product knowledge
  • a passion for retail
  • the ability to come up with innovative ideas
  • creative flair for design, marketing, buying and merchandising roles
  • leadership skills, if you'd like a management job
  • good IT skills
  • numerical and analytical skills
  • good organisation and time management
  • problem-solving ability
  • attention to detail
  • excellent customer service skills
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • strong communication skills
  • teamworking ability and a respectful approach to colleagues.

Take a look at the skills that employers want.

What are the key retail challenges?

The COVID pandemic and resulting lockdowns had a huge impact on the retail sector, with all but essential shops shut to the public. Since the restrictions lifted the industry is showing signs of recovery - ONS figures from September 2020 revealed that UK retail sales exceeded pre-pandemic levels by 4%. However, the recovery has slowed in 2021 and there are fears that the Christmas shopping period could be hampered by the shortage of HGV drivers. This could hinder stores who aren't getting deliveries of popular products.

The pandemic and the lack of footfall also sounded the death knell for a number of big brands and high streets up and down the country have seen a number of store closures. In fact, over 8,500 stores closed in the first half of 2021. Well-known brands that have either disappeared from our high streets or closed a significant number of stores include Debenhams, House of Fraser, Topshop, Paperchase and Victoria's Secret.

However, online sales soared during the pandemic and this is a retail trend that looks set to continue. With social media and smartphones feeding the demand for instant gratification the retail industry has seen a shift in shopping habits. Rather than spending their money in bricks and mortar shops, consumers are now shopping online with 'clicks'. As a result of this increased online demand retail organisations will be looking to recruit fresh digital talent.

The retail manufacturing industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet and an increasing awareness of environmental issues, and the retail industry's contribution to these concerns, has created more conscious consumers. Customers are increasingly asking if products have been responsibly sourced, if they're Fairtrade and if they can be recycled before they shop. Sustainability is important to young consumers and moving forward fashion retailers will need to take responsibility for the waste they produce.

Find out more

How would you rate this page?

On a scale where 1 is dislike and 5 is like

success feedback

Thank you for rating the page