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Retail, buying and merchandising
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Job done: how graduates can stand out at retail assessment centres

The majority of big retailers will include an assessment centre as part of their recruitment process. Usually, it’s the last stage of selection and will involve a narrowed-down group of candidates taking part in exercises, tests and interviews.
Previous John Lewis candidates have reported taking part in a 'true or false' exercise.

Assessment centres usually take place over one day from about 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, although this may vary. Next’s assessment centre typically only lasts half a day, for example, whereas Iceland’s is often spread over two days.

Some assessment centres are held in the company’s head office; however, some retailers may hold theirs at various locations around the country. You should be prepared to be flexible about location and be aware that, while some retailers may cover travel expenses, not all will pay for accommodation.

What tests and exercises can I expect at assessment days for retail graduate jobs?

The exercises and tasks you’ll face at an assessment centre will vary depending on the employer, and many employers change the structure of their assessment day every year or so. Nevertheless, there are a few exercises that crop up regularly. These include:

Sales pitch

You might be required to do a sales pitch either as a stand-alone task or as part of a presentation or group exercise. The pitch could take a number of different forms:

  • You may be given a product to ‘sell’ to the assessor within a limited amount of time (as past Debenhams candidates have reported)
  • You may be in a group in which you’re each given a product to pitch to one another before eventually deciding whose item is best (Tesco has supposedly used this exercise in the past)
  • You may have to rank products in order of which you think will sell best and explain why

If you’re going for a graduate management position, the ‘pitch’ may not be specifically related to selling but instead based on your recommendations for the store – what item you should promote this month or where to place stock, for example.

In all of the above examples, it’s essential that you ask questions to find out what the ‘customer’ needs and remember that you aren’t selling a product, you’re selling what it does and the benefit it provides. Assessors will be looking to see whether you understand their market and whether you recognise why a product would be popular with their customers. It’s also important to be enthusiastic throughout the pitch, regardless of what you’re given to sell.

Role play exercise

Role play exercises are a common feature of graduate management scheme assessment centres, but may also apply to other graduate roles. Marks and Spencer, for example, uses role play exercises at the assessment centres for some of its roles and describes them as a chance to assess how candidates handle realistic situations that could occur in the positions they are applying for.

You’ll likely be given a brief before the role play and a short time to prepare. Try your best not to get flustered and be sure to take your time during the actual role play discussion. Ask relevant questions and make notes to refer back to throughout the conversation.

Group exercise

These typically take the form of a group discussion in which you must collectively make a decision and, often, present that decision to the assessors. The decision may be about what product to sell – such as in the sales pitch examples above – or it may be something unrelated to retail. For example, past candidates at John Lewis and Waitrose assessment centres have reported working on a ‘true or false’ round, where groups of applicants are given cards with statements on them. The group then had to reach a joint agreement on whether the statements were correct. Alternatively, you might be given a prioritisation exercise in which you are required to decide as a group what priority should be given to different things. You might have to put a list of tasks in order, for example. John Lewis has been reported to have used prioritisation tasks in the past.

The ideal group exercise candidate will share opinions, encourage discussion of others’ opinions, keep an eye on the time and lead the group to a decision. Volunteer to take notes for extra credit.

Presentations

You’ll probably be given a brief about the presentation a few days in advance of the assessment centre so that you can spend some time preparing. Alternatively, you could be given a brief on the day and have a set amount of time (perhaps 15–30 minutes) in which to prepare. Usually you will be given a particular question to answer in the presentation, such as ‘How can we improve our customer experience?’ – or sometimes you will be asked to present your findings from a group exercise or a case study. The length of the presentations will vary between employers. Previous Sainsbury’s candidates, for example, have reported having to present for up to 20 minutes and then answer some follow-up questions.

Generally, the presentation will require you to demonstrate your knowledge of the retailer and its competitors. Good research and remembering to focus on the customer – talking about how your decisions might affect them, bearing in mind the retailer’s main demographic, considering consumer needs – is the key to a good retail presentation.

Interviews

Retail assessment days often end with at least one interview with senior management and/or an HR representative. This will be mostly competency-based but will also test your knowledge of the company, the graduate scheme and what your role will involve. You may also be required to do a presentation at the beginning (see above for more on presentations).

The trick to succeeding at a retail assessment centre: know how you’ll be assessed

Employers will use different methods for assessing you on the day. For example, you may be given a score for each task or you might be assessed against a list of core competencies. One more creative method rumoured to have been used in the past is a ‘traffic light’ system in which you’re given a green, amber or red light for your performance in each task and more than one amber is a fail. In any case, remember that you are not being judged directly against the other candidates – if every candidate is excellent then all of you might be offered a job, if every candidate is poor then none of you will be offered a job.

The best approach is to be confident, be yourself, go in with a good amount of research about the company and maintain a customer and client focus in every task. Check with the employer when you can expect to hear back about their decision.

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