Retail, buying and merchandising
A picture of interviewers and candidate

Retail graduate interviews: the questions to expect

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most likely questions to come up in interviews for graduate retail roles, from trainee managers to trainee buyers. We’ve also given you some tips on how to prepare for these questions so that you can give the best possible answers – with a little help from Donna Miller, European HR director at Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
The only way to tackle questions on the company and its business strategy is to research, research and research again.

Candidates usually have one or two interviews for graduate jobs at big retailers: typically a telephone or video interview and then an interview with a senior manager or two, either at an assessment centre or just after as a final stage of selection. John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Boots and Tesco are among the employers that usually follow this pattern.

What types of question will you face at retail graduate interviews?

The following types of question are examples of those likely to come up during a retail interview at any stage of the selection process.

‘Why retail?’ and other ‘motivational’ questions

Examples of retailers’ interview questions:

  • Why do you want to work in retail?
  • Why do you want to work for us?
  • Why do you want to be a buyer/merchandiser/store manager etc?
  • What do you think this role involves? Why do you think it would suit you?
  • This role requires relocating several times. Are you able/happy to do this?

How to answer questions like these: Interview questions that involve asking ‘why’ are often referred to as motivational questions. Recruiters want to know what is motivating you to apply for a particular job with them, rather than for any other job with any other company. The key to answering this type of question well is to be specific and avoid giving generic answers about the retailer’s size or success, for instance. This will require you to do some research into the job and the company that you’re applying for so you can give a tailored answer.

To research the retailer, read its website thoroughly and identify specific things that interest you so you can discuss them in the interview. For example, familiarise yourself with the retailer’s values and identify any that you share, learn about projects or initiatives that it runs and research its role in society. You can also make notes on any recent news stories about the retailer that may have inspired you to work for it, such as information on its financial performance or any innovative sales tactics.

To answer questions about the job, you need to start by making sure you know the job description and then use the retailer’s website to find out more about what it might involve. In all cases, your answers should be specific enough that they wouldn’t make sense if applied to any other retailer, any other job, or any other industry.

Commercial awareness or business-related questions

Examples of interview questions asked by retailers:

  • Who are our main competitors? How do they differ from us? What do you think we do better than them?
  • Who are our customers?
  • What changes would you make to our stores? (said to be asked at Lidl)
  • What challenges/issues do you think the retailer or the retail sector generally is facing?
  • What are your thoughts on our CSR/fair trade/ethical/sustainability policy?

How to answer questions like these: The only way to tackle questions on the company and its business strategy is to research, research and research again. Read the company’s website, its annual reports and press releases. Search for and read any media reports and analyses on the company and its competitors. Visit one of the retailer’s stores – more than one, if you can – and get a feel for the ethos of the company, how its brand is being put across, its layout, its customer service etc. If you can, talk to employees. It’s also a good idea to ask friends and family if they’ve shopped there and what they think of the organisation.

All of this will give you valuable insights to draw upon in your interview. Aim to visit a competitor’s store too, and compare the similarities and differences that you notice in the same areas. Make notes as you go and think about the opportunities and threats facing the retailer, and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Questions about hypothetical situations

Examples of retail interview questions:

  • What would you do if an employee has been arriving 30 minutes late to work every day? (for a store management job)
  • A certain product is being sold at the same price and same quantity as it is at a competing retailer, but the product at our stores is not selling as well. Why do you think this is? What would you do about it?
  • What would you do if the employee replacing you on the next shift doesn’t turn up? (for store jobs)

How to answer questions like these: Start by taking time to think about the scenario you are given and make sure you ask questions if you don’t understand or if there is something you want to check. Don’t feel pressured to rush your answer. If you are worried about pausing for too long, tell your interviewer that you are taking some time to think. Explain your thought processes clearly and remember that it’s fine to say that, if faced with this scenario, you would ideally check company policies or procedures before acting. Don’t be afraid to go with your gut instinct.

Questions about your skills and experience

Interviewers will also ask some of the more typical ‘competency’ interview questions: about your CV, your skills and examples of when you used those skills.

Examples of interview questions that retailers may ask:

  • What skills can you bring to the retailer? (said to be asked by Amazon and Tesco among others)
  • How have you successfully managed conflict? (said to be asked by the Body Shop)
  • When was the last time your plans were disrupted due to an unexpected event? How did you react? (said to be asked by the Body Shop among others)
  • Describe a situation where you were: under pressure; able to influence someone; creative; motivated (and showed it); able to stay calm; decisive etc
  • How have you ensured quality in the teams you have worked in? (said to be asked by Marks & Spencer)
  • Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer.

How to answer questions like these: Questions about your skills will align with the competencies that the retailer seeks and the values of the company, so if they are an entrepreneurial company, for example, expect questions about times you took the initiative or improved something.

  • The first step to preparing for these questions is to remind yourself of the attributes the company wants – reread the job ad.
  • The next step is to come up with examples of when you developed and demonstrated these skills from your part-time jobs, internships, extra-curricular activities and your course.
  • Practise explaining these examples – many graduates don’t show themselves in the best light they could. Use the CAR structure: explain the Circumstances (or background), the Actions you took and the Results (or outcomes). If you’re talking about when you worked in a team, focus on what you did.

Interviewers will want to see how you handle pressure

Many jobs in retail are highly pressured and require you to make decisions even when you don’t have all of the facts. For this reason, don’t be shocked if – on occasion – you are asked a number of questions in quick succession or interviewers appear impatient for an answer. If this happens, it is only to see how you react to pressure. Please note, however, that this type of interview technique is rare. Recruiters are more likely to see how you react under pressure by observing you in group exercises on assessment days or setting up ‘on-the-job evaluations’, where they put you in-store for a period of time to see how you’d act on the day.

Tips on answering retail interview questions from Enterprise Rent-A-Car

‘When I ask “Can you give me an example of a time when you provided excellent customer service?”, I am looking for an answer that is rich in detail: I want to hear specifics. I want to be able to see the candidate in that exact situation so I can work out whether they would fit as a management trainee,’ says Donna Miller, European HR director for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. ‘It’s also important to try to build rapport in the interview to show your communication skills, because many retail roles involve communicating with people all day.’

But what tips do you have on preparing for interview? ‘It’s a good idea to think about what you’d like to learn from the interview before you go in,’ she says. ‘Find out what the training will be about – you need to know what you will learn in your first year. Ask about career prospects: where can you go from this position? What makes people stay with the company and what makes them leave?’