Providing a livelihood to three and half million people, the retail sector is the UK's largest private sector employer. Discover what it's like to work in retail and the skills you'll need to succeed

What is retail?

It's basically the sale of goods and services to individual consumers. Retailers buy products in large amounts from manufacturers and then sell them in smaller quantities to people for a profit.

Retailers include door-to-door salespeople, those running market stalls, shops, department stores and supermarkets, as well as internet retailers.

According to Statista approximately 3.5million people work in the retail sector in the UK and information from a House of Commons Library research briefing paper tells us that the economic output of the retail industry was £112.9billion in 2023, accounting for 4.9% of the UKs total output.

In 2023 retail sales in Great Britain were worth £510billion, a 3% increase on the previous year.

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  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
  • Matalan
  • New Look
  • Next
  • Primark
  • River Island
  • TJX Europe (includes TK Maxx and HomeSense)
  • Zara.

Online shopping:

  • Amazon
  • ASOS
  • Boohoo
  • eBay
  • Missguided
  • N Brown Group (includes Jacamo, JD Williams and Simply Be)
  • Net-a-Porter
  • The Very Group (includes and


  • 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)
  • Signet Group (includes Ernest Jones and H Samuel).

According to the Guardian UK 300 Survey 2022/23 the top ten graduate retail employers are:

  • Amazon
  • ASOS
  • Apple
  • Aldi
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Boots
  • Dyson
  • Sony
  • L'Oreal
  • Asda.

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 £50,000, which rises incrementally to £94,240 after eight 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 retail 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 are 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 stand out in the competitive field of fashion retail a fashion or textiles related degree may be useful.

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 several 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.

How do I get a job in retail?

Full and part-time roles, as well as temporary and seasonal work are available within the sector.

Look for retail vacancies at:

You'll usually apply for jobs online with a CV and cover letter. For temporary or seasonal work, such as Christmas jobs it may be useful to apply speculatively.

You could also sign up to a retail recruitment agency such as:

You can kickstart your retail career through graduate schemes and apprenticeships but one of the best ways to get your foot in the door is via work experience.

Shop-floor experience is invaluable if you want to work in retail - it gives you an insight into how the business works and what customers want. Apply for part-time or weekend jobs to build up this kind of experience.

However, this isn't the only type of work experience on offer. A number of retail organisations run 12-month industrial placements (sandwich placements) in a variety of functions for students who's like to take some time out of their degree to gain some real world experience. For example:

  • Aldi - offer students the chance to participate in retail management, buying, supply chain, projects, HR and IT placements.
  • Lidl - on the retail industrial placement you'll gain experience in sales, logistics, head office, supply chain and human resources.
  • Marks & Spencer - their placement in clothing and home design kicks off with a two-week stint in store so you really get to know the business.
  • Morrisons - finance, manufacturing and supply chain placements are available with this supermarket chain.
  • Primark - based in Dublin placements are available in areas such as buying, merchandising, design, garment and product technology, brand and marketing, sustainability and ethics and project management.

What are the key retail challenges?

  • Economic factors - The cost of living crisis means that everyone is feeling the pinch. Due to inflation everyday goods and services are more expensive than before and people are cutting back to save the pennies.
  • Changing shopping habits - 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'.
  • Shop closures - In 2023 there were 971 store closures - the lowest number since 2015, although this was due to 62 business failing - the highest number since the Centre for Retail Research began collecting data in 2007. Wilko went into administration with thousands loosing their jobs. High profile chains such as The Body Shop have also called in administrators in early 2024 and high street staple Boots is set to close some (around 300), but not all of its stores.
  • Increasing awareness of environmental issues - The retail manufacturing industry is one of the most polluting industries on the planet 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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