Overview of the retail sector in the UK

Author
Jemma Smith, Editor
Posted
September, 2020

Employing over three million workers the retail industry is vast and vital to the UK economy. Find out about job opportunities and top retail employers

In 2019 the industry generated £394billion worth of retail sales - 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:

  • Arcadia Group (includes Burton Menswear, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Miss Selfridge, Outfit, Topman, Topshop, Wallis)
  • 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 2019/20 the top ten graduate retail employers are:

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • John Lewis
  • BMW Group
  • Arcadia Group
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Aldi
  • Boots
  • Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Tesco.

Lidl, TJX Europe, Next, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Sainsbury's and Asda narrowly missed out on a top ten listing.

Job site Indeed ranks the best retailers to work for in 2020. This year Wren Kitchens, Whole Foods Market and Lush Cosmetics make the top three followed by:

  • HMV
  • Selfridges
  • Clarks
  • The Perfume Shop
  • Sofology
  • Harrods
  • The Body Shop
  • John Lewis
  • IKEA
  • Marks and Spencer
  • Dreams
  • Schuh.

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 £77,870 after five years
  • 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 - 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 were the key retail challenges in 2020?

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'.

The national lockdown, enforced in March to help stop the spread of COVID-19, resulted in the majority of physical shops being shut for a number of weeks and this had a huge impact on physical sales. Stores selling essential items such as food and medicine were allowed to remain open but those selling non-essential items such as clothes, cosmetics, electricals and homeware took a hit. However, as a result online sales increased dramatically.

Since lockdown restrictions eased in mid June, the retail sector has shown positive signs of recovery. For example, the latest ONS (September) figures show that UK retail sales are now exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 4%. However it's food and online retailers that have rebounded the quickest, while sales at clothes and household goods stores remain below February's pre-pandemic levels.

The pandemic and the resulting lack of footfall also caused a number of struggling retailers to fall into administration. Fashion chain Cath Kidston failed to reopen any of its stores when lockdown restrictions eased, Debenhams formally entered into administration at the beginning of April and announced the closure of a further 20 stores, while Oasis and Warehouse went into administration in April. Quiz, Victoria's Secret, Go Outdoors and Harveys have also been put into administration during the pandemic, resulting in redundancies.

Going forward, physical retailers need to continue to enforce current restrictions (such as limiting the number of customers in store and ensuring that shoppers wear face coverings) and deal with the challenges these bring. There’s also the threat of a second wave of the virus, and the possibility of a second lockdown.

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

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