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Communication, leadership, teamwork: the top skills retail recruiters want from graduates

Five leading retail graduate employers tell us what competencies they expect from successful candidates – make sure you tick all the right boxes with your application and at interview.
Retail is all about customer service so it's no surprise that effective communication and leadership qualities are highly valued.

Retail recruiters have lists of skills and attributes they look for when assessing applicants during the application process for graduate schemes – whether you are interested in a buying, store management, finance or e-commerce role. Here, recruiters from Waitrose, Arcadia (Topshop etc), Argos and more give you their tips on how to convince them that you have what they need.

Show that you can contribute to a retailer’s commercial success, says Waitrose

To get a graduate job in retail, you need to show that you are commercially aware. Retailers want graduates ‘who can really contribute to commercial success,’ says Becky Wareham, recruitment manager with responsibility for graduate and industrial placements at Waitrose Ltd ‘This is all about implementing or influencing something – big or small – which really makes a difference to the overall profit, success and/or reputation of the business.’

How do you show you can do this? ‘You need to understand the climate the business is operating in, the challenges it faces, who the competitors are and what they are doing,’ says Becky. ‘You also need to consider why different retailers are successful and know what’s going on in the wider economy. Read company websites, news websites and journals such as the Financial Times and follow organisations via social media channels.’

It’s also worth thinking about how you have contributed to the success – commercial or otherwise – of a business or project. This could be in your part-time job or as part of an extra-curricular activity (such as deciding on ticket prices for a society/faculty ball).

Why analytical skills are essential for a retail career, by Arcadia

Analytical skills are vital for many careers in retail,especially in merchandising and finance. That’s according to Deborah Lally, group resourcing manager at Arcadia, the business behind brands such as Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins. ‘It’s a key skill needed to maximise profits,’ she says. ‘Merchandisers need to make decisions about which stores products should be sold in, how much stock should be placed in the store and whether a product should be restocked. They need to understand the numbers and then forecast and make recommendations accordingly.’ And in finance roles, there will be a lot of analysis in business trading.

How do retail graduate recruiters assess your ability to analyse? Analytical ability is usually assessed by online numerical tests and case study exercises. ‘Our merchandising candidates prepare an allocation exercise prior to the assessment centre, which involves allocating stock to multiple stores based on information in the brief,’ says Deborah. ‘We’re interested in the reasons for the allocations, not just the numbers.’

It’s also a good idea to think of examples when you analysed information to use if you’re asked about your ability to form conclusions during an interview.

Communicate confidently and openly to impress retail recruiters, says Enterprise Rent-A-Car

’In any retail environment, you will be asked to work with others – colleagues, the general public and business partners – and you will need to listen to them and work with them to get the job done,’ says Donna Miller, European HR director at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. ‘Understanding how to adapt your own style and language to suit others is critical in delivering impactful messages. It’s imperative that you get your message across confidently and openly. You can inspire others to act based on your style.’

How are your communication skills judged? Your communication skills will be assessed in your application form and throughout the interview and assessment centre process. Assessors will look at how you express your ideas and how you act in group exercises. Are you able to put others at ease? How persuasively do you communicate your ideas? Are you able to change your approach if the situation calls for it?

Demonstrate that you could be a future leader, says Argos

In some graduate roles, such as retail management, you will need to call on leadership skills immediately – but even if you’re not all retailers are looking for their graduates to be future leaders of the business. ‘Developing your leadership skills and being able to convey them during the selection process is essential,’ confirms Lisa Bradley (now Steel), HR manager at Argos.

How to demonstrate your leadership potential? ‘Holding key roles in clubs, societies or group projects shows your commitment to developing your leadership skills,’ says Lisa. However, bear in mind that leadership calls upon many other skills, such as the ability to build relationships, solve problems and set priorities.

Creating a good team ethos is good for you and customers, says McDonald’s

'In retail, employees will always be working as part of a team regardless of the size of the business,’ says Nicky Ivory, HR officer at McDonald’s Restaurants Limited. ‘If you’re working on the shop floor it’s vital to have a good team ethos, both to support each other and to create a good atmosphere for customers. Additionally whatever your role in the business, you need to be able to understand the needs of other teams and work well across functions.’

How do you impress recruiters with your teamworking skills? Partly your teamworking skills will come across in your application form and interview answers. ‘Before applying, analyse your relevant experiences,’ suggests Nick. ‘You need to be specific about your role and achievements to demonstrate this skill convincingly.’ At assessment centres, recruiters will observe how well you interact with others and behave in group tasks.

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