Job done: how graduates can stand out at retail assessment centres

Last updated: 21 Jun 2023, 15:39

Discover the activities a retail assessment centre is likely to involve and the best ways to approach them.

Red shoes standing out among a sea of white: discover how to stand out at a retail assessment day.

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. They generally take place over one day from about 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, although this may vary.

While it was typical for assessment centres to be held at the company’s head office or various other locations, the pandemic has made it more likely that this stage will be held virtually. You'll be assessed on the same skills and in many of the same ways as you would be during a face-to-face assessment centre. However, you might find that the retailer has adapted some approaches to suit the new circumstances and the platform used (eg by replacing one group activity with an interview question about a time you worked well in a team). After reading this, you might want to take a look at our advice on virtual assessment centres .

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
  • 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, has used 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. Think about both what you say and how you communicate. For instance, if the scenario involves a managee who isn’t happy with a task you are asking them to complete, try to talk persuasively and avoid using a harsh or blunt tone.

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 Partnership's 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 Partnership 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. You might volunteer to take notes but make sure this doesn’t prevent you from engaging in the conversation. It’s important to demonstrate that you have your own ideas and can negotiate with others. If you don’t agree with any decisions being made, think about the most tactful way of getting this across and whether you might be able to reach a compromise, rather than just forcefully stating your own viewpoint.


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. In-depth research and remembering to focus on the customer – talking about how your decisions might affect them, bearing in mind the retailer’s main demographic and considering consumer needs – is the key to a good retail presentation. Particularly if you’ve prepared your presentation before the assessment centre, it can be easy to learn it word-for-word and recite it on the day. While there’s nothing wrong with this, make sure you remember your thought processes when you created the presentation because this will allow you to answer follow-up questions more easily.


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). It’s a good idea to refresh your memory of the job description the day before the assessment centre, considering how your experiences and skills match the requirements.

Remember: you're not in competition

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 and if every candidate is poor then none of you will be offered a job. Focus on demonstrating your own skills and suitability for the position rather than competing.

The best approach is to be confident, be yourself, research the company beforehand and maintain a customer and client focus in every task.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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