Retail work experience: what’s available and how it could help you

Last updated: 12 Jun 2023, 10:49

Find out about industrial placements, summer internships, part-time jobs and short-term opportunities, and how they could help you in your retail graduate job hunt in areas such as buying, merchandising and fashion design.

An illustration of the different retail environments in which students could gain work experience.

Retail work experience: Industrial placements | Internships and summer placements | Short-term work experience placements | What work experience do you need for different retail graduate jobs? | What work experience is available in different retail roles? | Can I still apply for retail placements and internships if I've already graduated?

Retail is a broad sector, covering roles in buying, merchandising, fashion design, retail management and more. So, if you know you want to work for a well-known retailer when you graduate, it’s understandable that you want to gain some work experience in retail before then.

The main types of retail work experience include:

Industrial placements

Also referred to as a ‘year in industry’, an industrial placement is formal work experience offered to undergraduates (normally in their penultimate year) who are doing a ‘sandwich’ degree. Industrial placement students are typically paid an annual salary; for instance, John Lewis Partnership typically offers its industrial placement students a salary of £21,000. Performing well on a retailer’s industrial placement is a good way to make yourself stand out if you’re hoping to get on to its graduate scheme.

Students interested in applying to an industrial placement usually need to do so during the first term of the year before their placement, possibly extending into the second term. This is because many of the larger companies set deadlines for applications around December and January, although this can vary; some applications may open/close earlier and some later. John Lewis Partnership, for example, will begin recruiting for its next cohort of placements in early 2023.

The application process for industrial placements is often along the same lines as for graduate schemes and during a placement it’s common for students to work at a similar level to those on a retailer’s graduate programme. The application process for Aldi’s industrial placement, for example, is usually exactly the same as for their graduate scheme.

Students applying for an industrial placement can expect the application process to be something like this, although it will vary depending on the retailer and the role you are applying for:

Internships and summer placements

These terms are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to formal work experience that is usually offered to penultimate-year students. Internships can be as short as a week, but in most cases they last for at least a month and are more commonly run in the summer, rather than the Easter or Christmas holidays. Tesco’s summer internships, for example, typically last for ten weeks. Like industrial placements, internships are normally paid and they often follow a similar application process, although perhaps slightly shorter. Many larger companies have deadlines in December or January for internships taking place the next summer; however, some may close earlier and others may stay open as late as spring.

Short-term work experience placements

Short-term work experience placements usually last one or two weeks and are typically unpaid. In general, short-term work experience tends to be aimed at school pupils rather than university students; however, unless this is specified, there is no reason that university students or recent graduates can’t apply. If you are completely new to retail, a short-term placement may suit you as it will help you to decide whether or not the career sector suits you without committing so much time. Short-term work experience placements take place throughout the year so application dates are typically less fixed than those for industrial placements or summer internships, which are usually at the same time each year.

What work experience do you need for different retail graduate jobs?

In reality, if you want either a formal placement or a graduate job in a professional area of retail, such as merchandising, logistics, retail management or fashion design, recruiters will expect you to have some experience of working in a store.

Aside from more general retail experience, how much experience you need in the specific role that you want to apply for (eg buying or visual merchandising) is dependent on your individual set of skills. For example, if you’ve had previous experience in supervising (perhaps through teaching or working with children) you might not need to complete an internship or placement year in retail management to secure a place on a retail management scheme. This is because you will already have developed skills that a job in retail management would require, such as management, organisation and discipline.

Having said that, whatever skills or other experience you have, having done a directly relevant formal work placement will always be a huge advantage, particularly for more competitive roles.

What work experience is available in different retail roles?

For many retailers’ industrial placements and summer internships you need to be in your penultimate year of study and on track for a 2.1, although increasingly retailers will accept a 2.2. In most cases, retailers will accept candidates with any degree subject; however, for some roles they may have subjects that they prefer.

An overview of retail management work experience

Retail management industrial placements are common among large retailers, such as Aldi . These will give you an in-depth experience of the role, which will be appealing to employers.

An overview of buying work experience

Buying is a popular area of retail so having previous work experience in buying will work in your favour when applying for a buying graduate scheme. For example, TJX Europe (TK Maxx) typically offers industrial placements. Other, often smaller, fashion retailers may offer ad-hoc internships.

The degree subject requirements for buying work experience opportunities tend to vary among retailers; while some may not specify a subject, others may prefer students from analytical or numerical backgrounds. Remember that any work experience in a retail environment will enable you to get an idea of things that buyers need to think about, such as what products customers want and when.

An overview of merchandising work experience

TJX Europe (TK Maxx) offers an industrial placement in merchandising and buying, while Matalan runs a 12-month merchandising placement.

Although many retailers don’t specify particular degree subjects needed to apply, some may express a preference for business-related or numerate subjects. Merchandising recruiters also particularly value candidates with experience of working in a store because of the insight it gives you into customer buying habits and how different stock performs at different times.

An overview of fashion design work experience

Fashion design is incredibly competitive and there aren’t many graduate schemes available, so the more fashion design experience you can get the better. There are some formal placements out there but you should also be prepared to apply for experience speculatively. For formal placements, some retailers don’t specify what degree subjects they prefer candidates to be studying, but it is likely that students studying subjects such as fashion and textiles will be preferred.

An overview of retail ecommerce, IT and technology work experience

Most retailers accept applicants from any degree subject for ecommerce, IT and technology graduate roles. However, if your studies aren’t in a directly related subject, such as computer science, getting work experience in ecommerce, IT and technology is particularly useful because it will show your commitment to this area of work. Tesco runs summer internships in technology, and Aldi offers industrial placements in both ecommerce and IT.

An overview of logistics work experience

Marks & Spencer runs a logistics internship, as does Amazon. Short-term placements are less common in this area. Be aware that, although most retailers will accept candidates from any degree subject onto their logistics placements, some may prefer subjects such as maths, engineering and science.

Can I still apply for retail placements and internships if I’ve already graduated?

The majority of formal work experience placements, such as industrial placements or summer internships, are aimed at current students rather than graduates. So what should you do if you’re a graduate who wants a career in buying, fashion design or merchandising, for example, but you haven’t done a formal placement? There are several options.

Apply for retail graduate schemes anyway

You can still apply for graduate or entry-level jobs without having done a formal placement. As mentioned above, if you’ve acquired the skills that retailers are looking for in other ways, retailers don’t require a formal placement. When applying, provide evidence that you have the skills that the employer has specifically requested on the job description – your leadership skills, teamwork abilities and so on. Don’t just state you have the skills; provide evidence of when you’ve used them.

Ask a careers adviser, a friend or a relative with experience of recruiting to read through your application before you send it off. They can advise you on whether you’re making the most of your skills. You can still get advice from a careers adviser at your university even after you’ve graduated.

Do a skills audit

Assess how much evidence you have of the skills you need to get the job you want. Start by making sure you know what skills are required. Research the role and identify the key things that employers want from candidates. These are the skills usually listed as ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ on job descriptions. Then score yourself out of ten for those skills (maybe ask someone else to help you) so you know which ones you need to work on. Next, plan how you’ll develop them; for example, if you think your leadership skills could do with a boost, offer to take on more responsibility in a part-time job.

Get a part-time job in retail and use it to network

If you haven’t already, make sure you do some shop work. This doesn’t mean just getting through your shift so you can put it on your CV. Talk to your colleagues and managers to seek their advice; they might know about possible work experience opportunities at head office. Don’t be afraid to ask those in senior positions about how they got into their roles. You could also ask to shadow them for a day to find out more about the area you want to work in.

Network online

Make sure you have an up-to-date LinkedIn profile and make contact with professionals working in the roles you are interested in. They might be willing to tell you more about their roles, give you advice on how to improve your CV or allow you to work shadow them. It’s also worth making contact with retail recruiters too. It will help them to remember you when you apply for graduate jobs.

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