With its year-on-year growth and variety of career opportunities, 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 2015 alone it generated £340billion worth of retail sales. It is the largest private sector employer with approximately 290,315 bricks and mortar retail outlets in the UK, saying nothing for all of its online operations.

Whether you're aiming for a career in a customer-facing role or a position in head office, the sector has plenty of opportunities on offer, 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;
  • 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 graduate jobs in retail.

Who are the main graduate employers?

In clothing retail, employers include:

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

In online shopping, large companies include:

  • Amazon.co.uk;
  • ASOS;
  • Boohoo.com;
  • eBay;
  • N Brown Group (includes Jacamo and JD Williams);
  • Shop Direct Group (includes Littlewoods.com and Very.co.uk).

Supermarket retailers include:

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

Graduates can also find opportunities with the following employers:

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

According to The Guardian UK 300 survey the top ten graduate retail employers in 2016/17 are:

  • Amazon;
  • John Lewis Partnership;
  • Arcadia Group;
  • Marks & Spencer;
  • Aldi;
  • Abercrombie & Fitch;
  • Boots;
  • Lidl;
  • Tesco;
  • Asda.

The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list 2015/16 also includes Apple, McDonalds Restaurants and Sainsbury's.

When researching potential employers it's useful to know which organisations are doing well. The AlixPartners Growth Retailer Report, in partnership with Retail Week, highlights the fastest-growing companies in 2016. These include:

  • Shop Direct;
  • Savers Health and Beauty;
  • Gemporia;
  • Edinburgh Woollen Mill;
  • Tiger;
  • Dune;
  • VictoriaPlum.com;
  • Space NK;
  • Mint Velvet;
  • Whistles.

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.
  • An average graduate salary of £26,000, according to The Graduate Market in 2016 report from High Fliers. However, one of the highest graduate salaries in 2016 is Aldi's Area Manager Programme at £42,000, which rises to £72,000 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 smart dress code for customer-facing roles. Some head office positions may also require smart dress and you'll be expected to be on trend when working in fashion retail.
  • 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 are the key issues in the retail sector?

In an increasingly competitive market, companies have to compete to provide the best customer service, hence the increase in focus on omni-channel retailing. Customers want to combine the personal service of traditional retailing and the convenience of using technology, so organisations are striving to provide a seamless shopping experience whether online, on mobile, over the phone or face-to-face.

Due to the rise of omni-channel retailing there is demand for graduates with technical skills, for example to produce apps for smartphones and resolve issues with online sites and sales. So while retail may not be the first choice of sector for web developers, opportunities for them to use their skills and expertise are increasing in the industry.

With a 10% average annual growth of online retail sales in 2015 customers continue to demand rapid, reliable delivery of their goods, as such more sophisticated supply-chain management systems and logistics managers are needed.

Another issue set to become a priority, thanks to the rise of online shopping, is cyber security. The volume of personal and financial customer details held by retailers makes them a target for hackers. In the next couple of years cyber security will be high on boardroom agendas as companies aim to improve their defences.

The introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in April 2016 is another issue currently affecting the retail industry. Every retail worker aged 25 or over will now earn a minimum of £7.20 an hour. Retailers that do pay the minimum wage for non-managerial roles will 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.

A report by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Retail 2020 Fewer But Better Jobs has found that while the industry as a whole is supportive of the NLW, the effect on employment has been underestimated. The report predicts that the changing retail landscape and the NLW could lead to 900,000 fewer retail jobs by 2025, but those jobs that remain will be more productive and higher earning.