With almost three million workers the retail industry is the UKs largest private sector employer. Ambitious graduates can join the ranks working for a variety of high-profile companies in a range of roles

The retail industry is vital to the UK economy - in 2017 it generated £395billion worth of retail sales and in 2018 the sector housed 319,000 retail businesses.

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 sales people 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 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, JD Williams and Simply Be)
  • Net-a-Porter
  • Shop Direct (includes Littlewoods.com and Very.co.uk).

Supermarkets:

The four biggest retailers in the UK are Tesco, Sainsbury's, Walmart (Asda) and Morrisons meaning that the industry is dominated by supermarkets, closely followed by internet retailer Amazon and 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 2018/19 the top ten graduate retail employers are:

  • Amazon
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Arcadia Group
  • Marks & Spencer
  • Aldi
  • Boots
  • Abercrombie & Fitch
  • Lidl
  • TK Maxx
  • Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

Tesco, Next, Sainsbury’s, Asda 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 Retail Week the fastest growing retailers in the UK in 2018 were:

  • Farfetch
  • Missguided
  • Made.com
  • Childrensalon
  • Green Man Gaming
  • The Hut Group
  • Matchesfashion.com
  • Loaf
  • Oliver Bonas.

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
  • 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, Lidl's Graduate Trainee Area Manager Scheme has a starting salary of £46,893 and Aldi's Area Manager Programme pays £44,000, which rises incrementally to £75,360 after four 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 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. 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.

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 for apprentices (£3.70 per hour), all while working towards intermediate, advanced, higher or degree qualifications.

On a retail apprenticeship you could train as a:

  • assistant buyer
  • assistant merchandiser
  • digital marketer
  • retail manager
  • retail team leader
  • senior sales assistant
  • style adviser
  • travel consultant.

Retail companies running apprenticeship programmes include:

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

Find out how to apply for an apprenticeship.

What are the key issues in the retail industry?

Issues such as internet retailing, changing customer behaviour and store closures are currently affecting the retail sector.

According to the House of Commons Briefing Paper, Retail sector in the UK released October 2018, 28 retail companies with multiple stores have ceased trading in the year to August 2018, affecting 39,000 jobs.

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'.

Discover how get a job in online retail.

Fashion retail sales have also 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 set to feel the financial pinch thanks to the 4.9% increase in the National Living Wage (NLW) from April 1 2019. The NLW will increase to £8.21 from £7.83. Every retail worker aged 25 or over will now earn a minimum of £8.21 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.

Find out more