Before your interview for a graduate scheme with a retailer, you should carry out in-depth research into the company you’re applying to and its competitors. As well as looking online, visiting the physical stores of three to five retailers – including the one you’re applying to – and thinking analytically about how they operate day-to-day will improve your responses to commercial awareness questions.
Note down observations so you can compare; you’ll be able to identify trends in the sector and differences in approach. Thinking analytically about what works well and what doesn’t may also mean you can impress recruiters with ideas about potential changes to the running of their stores.
Tailor your thoughts to the position
It’s important to go to the store with an idea of how you will use the time to support you in the recruitment process. You should tailor this to the position you’re applying for. For example, if you’re applying for a merchandising graduate scheme, focus on the products on offer – including factors such as whether there are seasonal ranges and how the products are presented. If you’re looking to go into retail management, consider the workforce: are customer assistants carrying out a variety of tasks or are they focusing on one task, like managing the tills or putting out stock? Nonetheless, there are a few factors to consider, regardless of the programme you’re applying to.
1) Tapping into trends
Before you take a trip to the high street, do your research to discover how retailers are using recent fashions to guide their product ranges and approaches – focusing on the type of company you’re applying to (food retailers, clothing retailers etc). This will help you to identify where companies are tapping into customer trends when visiting stores and, perhaps, where they are missing opportunities.
As well as customer trends, reading news stories should give you an idea of the factors that are impacting upon on the retail industry and how the industry is adapting as a result. Gaining this context before seeing how this translates to individual stores will give you a well-rounded understanding of the industry, which will impress recruiters.
2) Online vs. high street
One industry-wide trend to consider is the growth of the online market, which has caused many retailers to change the way they sell. While one approach is to move a greater proportion of the business online, another is to focus on improving and diversifying the experiences customers have when they visit a store. Many companies have combined the two, with a greater online presence and fewer, more experience-focused high street shops.
Look at the retailer’s website and think about whether there’s a clear brand or ‘image’ that runs across both the online and physical store, or whether one looks more up-to-date than the other. You could also consider whether you gain anything by visiting the shop. For a clothing retailer, this might be down to a strong display, which is both aesthetically pleasing and gives you an idea of the items that work well together as an outfit. Alternatively, there might be an in-store café or hairdressers, both of which are features of the Primark that opened up in Birmingham this year.
3) The products
Any position with a retailer will involve some involvement with the products they sell and recruiters will expect you to have a good idea of their product ranges. This will help to prove your interest in the company.
The products on offer can also provide an insight into the business as a whole. A range that meets the needs of a new group of people could indicate a business’ attempt to widen its customer base. When a food retailer introduces a new vegetarian product, such as the Beyond Meat burger (and the soon-to-be-introduced Beyond Meat sausages) sold at Tesco, you can see it’s adapting to suit the dietary changes that many customers are making.
4) The customer service
Regardless of your position, retailers will be looking for employees who can deliver their idea of good customer service. They may ask you about this during your interview; by considering the customer service you experience during your store visits, you’ll be able to give a well-considered answer.
Don’t settle for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but think about the type of customer service at the company you’re applying to. Did a member of staff welcome you as you walked through the door, or were they instead on hand to help if you approached them? If you’re visiting shops that specialise in certain types of products – such as books or stationery – you could ask questions to customer assistants to gauge whether they are knowledgeable about their stock. This research should give you a better understanding of what the company means by ‘good customer service’ and use this to guide your response to questions on this topic.
Ask the audience
If you’re not part of the intended customer base of the retailer you’re applying to, it might be useful to ask a friend or family-member who is to go along with you. You can always hide your careers-based intentions under the guise of ‘a fun shopping trip’. Remember to ask them questions as you go around, such as what they think of the product ranges and the customer service. Think about the reasons behind their responses and their decision to – or not to – buy anything. Was the product marketed or positioned in a way that led to this decision? Have you read about a customer trend that seems to influence your friend’s spending? If you are a member of the target audience, you can ask yourself these questions.
Talking to store staff
You might be able to gain information from employees at the company, although this isn’t essential and should be avoided if the store is particularly busy. If you do manage to talk to someone who isn’t occupied with another task, keep it brief and adapt your questions according to the employee’s role. If you’re talking to a customer assistant, you might ask them about the recruitment process they went through and the training they received. Knowing this information will be particularly relevant if you’re applying to a retail management scheme.