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Retail, buying and merchandising
A graduate product technologist at work in a retailer's lab

Product technology and food technology: area of work

Product technologists and food technologists are vital in the retail industry because all products must be deemed high quality and safe before they reach the store. Graduates with relevant degrees, project management skills and attention to detail are popular candidates for careers in these areas of retail.
Product technologists and food technologists have to ensure that products are up to scratch before they go on sale.

What is product technology and food technology?

These are areas of retail concerned with developing the highest quality products to be sold to consumers. This involves creating new products as well as continually improving existing ones. For example, a food technologist might work on lowering the salt and fat content of an already existing food product, while a product technologist might work to develop the quality of different fabrics or check the safety of an electrical gadget.

Product technologists and food technologists have to ensure that products are up to scratch before they go on sale. This includes inspecting the quality, safety and legality of everything that is to be sold. Food technologists are required for all different types of foodstuffs, such as dairy products, home baking products and frozen food. Similarly, product technologists are needed for a wide range of retail items such as clothing, fabrics, home wares and electrical goods. Both food technologists and product technologists usually specialise in one particular type or range of products. For example, a product technologist might choose to specialise in children’s toys, whereas a food technologist might choose to specialise in tinned goods.

What do product technologists and food technologists do?

Product technologists and food technologists normally work in a variety of locations each week. This may include spending time in the office, the store, in testing centres or visiting suppliers wherever they are based. When asked about what her job involves Vanessa Fursden, a food technologist at Marks and Spencer, told us, ‘I typically spend about half the week in the office and the other on various sites: in factories and working with suppliers.’ The tasks a technologist carries out vary according to the product and the location they are working in. In the office, work usually involves sampling products, checking new packaging artwork, monitoring and following up any customer complaints and attending internal meetings. When out visiting suppliers, the work could entail reviewing a particular product in detail: examining its specifications, looking at microbiological results, investigating complaints and conducting a compliance audit.

Working closely with suppliers is an important part of a product technologist’s and a food technologist’s job because they need to know exactly what is going into the products. This is so they can make sure the products are being produced ethically and using the most suitable raw material. This is becoming an increasingly significant aspect of product and food technology as many retailers are trying hard to improve the impact that they are having on the environment, such as by reducing the carbon footprint of the store’s products. Marks & Spencer’s ‘Plan A’ is one example of this.

You should expect your role to vary slightly according to the product you specialise in and retailer you work for. Although the overall concept of the job is the same, a technologist specialising in clothing, for example, may find they have different tasks and concerns to a technologist working for a food division. The technologist working in clothing won’t have to consider how to maximise the shelf life of their products, for instance, whereas this would be a priority for a food technologist.

What degree background do I need for a career in product or food technology?

The majority of employers will require you to have a degree relevant to the role you are applying for: for example, chemistry, food science/technology, textiles, product technology, material science and engineering subjects. Some employers may also specify a degree classification.

What skills do product technologists and food technologists need?

  • A love of retail and a love of your product(s) in particular
  • Good commercial awareness
  • Excellent project and time management skills
  • Outstanding attention to detail
  • The ability to work individually as well as in a team
  • Strong verbal and written communication skills
  • Computer literacy
  • The ability to solve problems effectively and creatively.

Product technology and food technology graduate schemes

Most graduates join graduate schemes or start out in entry-level jobs. Typical entry-level job titles are ‘assistant technologist’ or ‘trainee technologist’. Be warned: there aren’t as many graduate schemes for product or food technology as there are for other aspects of retail, such as buying or merchandising.

On many graduate schemes you’ll spend time in store to learn about the retailer’s products and get to know the operations involved. This will give you hands-on experience and enable you to go on to develop products that customers will want to buy and staff will want to handle. During this time, you may be given key projects by the store manager. The aim of most graduate schemes in product and food technology is to gradually work your way up to managing your own set of products.

Why choose a career in product or food technology

For those who don’t like being tied to a desk every day, product or food technology could offer a greater variety of locations from which to work. Sampling products is also an aspect commonly considered a perk of these roles. Graduates who have an excellent attention to detail and enjoy managing projects could be well suited to these areas of retail.

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