Luke completed a combined honours degree at the University of Gloucestershire in business management and human resource management. He went on to complete the Tesco store management graduate programme, before working as deputy manager of the Clapham store. Claire studied history at the University of Sheffield and within four years completed the Tesco graduate scheme and worked her way up to becoming a stores director for the Midlands and Gloucestershire.
What skills do graduates need to get hired in retail management?
Luke says: ‘Since I started working in retail management, I’ve learned that you need empathy because retail is a team sport; you can’t do anything without other people. You need to be a good listener so you’re able to learn from others’ experiences and have clear communication so the other colleagues understand you every time. It’s important to be open and honest with people, to be yourself and to treat people with respect.’
Claire says: ‘As well as face-to-face communication, you need to be able to communicate through emails and phone calls. Presenting skills are important too; it really helps if you have the confidence to address groups of all sizes. Good organisation is clearly important but you really have to be able to think strategically, to see the long-term goals of the company.’
Luke says: ‘I think the application process I went through with Tesco was standard for any retailer: there was an application form, telephone interview, literacy and numeracy tests and an assessment centre. The assessment centres last one or two days, with around 30 candidates. There are various exercises to stretch different work skills, such as presentations, teamworking activities and business analysis.
‘I found the process hugely competitive because the candidates really set the bar high. However, with a big retailer, there are lots of jobs available so we weren’t really competing against each other. I found that the best thing to do is to be yourself and don’t waste your time applying for something if you’re not genuinely passionate about it. If you don’t really want it, the recruiter can tell straight away.’
Luke says: ‘I worked through some example interview questions beforehand. On the day, I made sure I wasn’t rushing and had enough time to relax and focus. I also did plenty of research on Tesco so I knew about the corporate structure, financial results and sustainability plans. It’s all readily available online so print it all out and read up before you go.’
Claire says: ‘Because I was really prepared, I was able to be myself on the day and make the right first impression. You want to get a job for who you are, not who you pretend to be. It’s also important to approach challenges with common sense, even if they’re new to you.
‘In total, I must have applied for around 40 graduate programmes in different sectors because I wanted to get a feel for different organisations, but in hindsight it would have been better to have a more tailored approach.’
Luke says: ‘I had worked in a hotel for six months so I had experience of customer service and dealing with money that I could talk about in my application. I also did a placement year in Tesco’s head office. It really helped me get a feel for the culture, not just for Tesco but for the retail sector in general. I think relevant experience is the most important thing, rather than degree subject. Retail is about people so having experience that shows off your interpersonal skills and leadership potential is more important.’
Claire says: ‘I studied history and graduate managers from non-related subjects are more common than you might think. My degree improved my analytical skills because I could read and understand data and form opinions from it. I had also learned to debate and discuss.
‘As for experience, I had worked in Greggs but really I was a novice in retail so it was a daunting transition and I would recommend getting more experience first. However, I had played international netball and was captain of the netball team at university so I was used to the team atmosphere you get in retail and knew how to work hard to achieve a common goal. Because I had experience of engaging and leading people, I was confident in the different scenarios and group exercises at the assessment centres.’
Luke says: ‘It surprised me how much responsibility I got so early on. I started on day one and had an orientation. Then on day two, I went to my store and I was a line manager. I felt that, as a graduate, I was expected to be the future of the company and should hit the ground running. That being said, it wasn’t too daunting because I had a lot of support; coming in as a graduate was nothing new to the store and my colleagues were very welcoming and encouraging.’
Claire says: ‘What I found most daunting was working in a corporate environment after being at university. I was also surprised by how practical the job is. I expected to be in an office behind a desk but, in reality, I spend a lot of time on the shop floor. It’s easy to underestimate how much time managers actually spend talking to colleagues and customers. I think one of the big misconceptions about joining a large retailer is that, because it’s such a huge business, you could get lost, but that’s not the case; you actually feel like part of a family.
‘What’s great is that there are so many opportunities; I’ve done a range of different roles and I’ve progressed really quickly. Graduates need to consider retail management as a long-term career. You might not absolutely love the area you’re working in at one point but if you’re going to become a real business leader, you have to understand all avenues of the organisation. That’s what attracted me: it’s a career for life, not a job for life.’
What is the work like as a graduate in retail management?
Luke says: ‘It’s all about serving the customer, whether that means dealing with the customers yourself or making sure that colleagues are happy so they give great service to customers. Having great customer service skills is essential.
‘I also organise colleagues, making sure the right people are in the right places at the right times. I check that products are readily available to customers and, if they’re not, I investigate why that’s the case. So it’s important to be well-organised because you have to arrange tasks for others as well as yourself.
‘Part of the job involves crunching numbers, for example calculating the payroll, expenses or waste. I wasn’t especially numerical beforehand but I was given the tools and time to work on that on the job.’
Claire says: ‘Retail graduate schemes are often broken down into sections so you could be in head office or in distribution. It means you really get a sense of what the whole business is about and you’re not just one cog in the wheel. I was working in the convenience stream a lot and after eight months I was a store manager at a convenience store. You can prepare for many parts of the job but you can’t prepare for that feeling of accountability and responsibility so I’m really glad I had that opportunity early on.’
Click here for more information on what retail management graduate schemes involve.