The top trends affecting the retail industry: a guide for graduate job hunters

Graduate employers in the retail industry will expect applicants to be up-to-speed with the trends impacting the industry. Read on to discover the kind of information you should be researching and the retail trends you should be following as of January 2021.

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You should also have some idea of how retailers are adapting to overcome any changes or difficulties and the impact that this is having on their success.

Retail is a rapidly-changing sector. To succeed in the recruitment process for a graduate role it is vital that you are aware of the trends affecting the industry and consumer spending. You will need to know how these trends affect:

  • the retail industry as a whole
  • the retailer that you have applied for
  • the retailer’s competitors.

Why do graduates need to know about retail trends?

On an application form or in an interview for a graduate retail role you are likely to be asked commercial awareness questions. These might include outlining the challenges and issues that the retailer or industry is facing, or making suggestions about how the retailer might improve its store. Further down the line, assessment centres commonly use case study exercises and presentations to assess candidates. Again, this will require you to demonstrate your commercial awareness. You will need to have researched trends thoroughly in order to give informed answers at every stage during the selection process. Recruiters want candidates who can show their understanding of and interest in the sector.

Retail commercial awareness: things to look out for

If you’re trying to develop your retail commercial awareness, below are some of the things that you should be brushing up on. Use these as starting points for your own research into the sector.

Retailers and their competition

Retail is a highly competitive area and you must be aware of which retailers are in competition with one another. You need to know who the main retailers are and understand their similarities and differences. In particular, you should carry out research to discover the main competitors of the company you’re applying to. Bear in mind that retail is very fast moving so just because one retailer is in the lead today, it doesn’t mean that they always will be. Remember, too, to consider the competitors of the departments or sections of the retailer you are looking to work in. If you’re searching for work in the clothing section of a supermarket, for instance, retailers of clothes, shoes and accessories should be included in your considerations.

Current example: the interminable rise of online

The force of Amazon and the struggle of those retailers that failed to create thriving websites to add to or replace their once-popular high street stores was clear before the pandemic. However, lockdown and social distancing measures have certainly exacerbated this trend, with shoppers not only turning to online offerings out of convenience but pulled towards them out of necessity.

Aside from investing time and money into their online presence, one example of how some retailers have been competing is by increasing their offering of delivery services. This includes supermarkets – M&S, for example, started offering food boxes (boxes of food delivered to customers’ doors) at the start of lockdown and has since partnered with Ocado to provide food delivery, while Morrisons offers weekly, monthly and fortnightly subscriptions to food boxes.

Developments in the retail sector

If you are applying for a graduate job at a retailer, recruiters will expect you to be aware of what is affecting the sector in general as well as what is affecting the particular company that you are applying to. You should also have some idea of how retailers are adapting to overcome any changes or difficulties and the impact that this is having on their success.

Current example: pressure to go green

Customers’ expectations have been changing in line with their increased awareness of the detrimental impact of climate change and the different ways humans are harming the planet. This has led many retailers to improve their green credentials in certain areas and ensure customers are aware of any environmental strategies or plans through marketing and advertising.

Campaigns such as Second Hand September highlights how people are becoming more and more aware of the environmental impact of ‘fast fashion’. As a response, some retailers have in recent years started clothing recycling schemes. M&S’ ‘schwopping’ scheme, for instance, allows customers to donate their unwanted clothes. These are then sent Oxfam to be sold in shops, reused via its social enterprise in Senegal or recycled into new materials.

Plastic pollution is another central concern, with single use plastics and microplastics coming under particular scrutiny. Some retailers are attempting to highlight their dedication to reducing plastic waste – Almost all the UK’s major supermarkets signed up to the UK Plastics Pact in 2018, and Tesco removed more than 20 million pieces of single-use plastic from its Christmas range last year.

Current example: ensuring workers' rights

Alongside environmental concerns, maintaining ethical standards involves protecting the rights of workers across the supply chain. The negative media attention that can be caused by not doing so (or not getting away with it) can be detrimental to a brand. As one example, Boohoo came under scrutiny last year after it was revealed that the company sold clothes made by workers in factories based in Leicester, who were paid less than minimum wage, and by Pakistani factory employees working in poor conditions and for low pay.

The fashion transparency index is one way in which fashion retailers are called out/praised as it ranks them according to the amount of information companies disclose about social and environmental policies, processes and effects within their operations and supply chains. In 2020, The H&M Group, C&A, Adidas/Reebok, Esprit, Marks & Spencer and Patagonia were revealed as the world’s most transparent major fashion brands.

Doing further research

You need to thoroughly research these trends as well as any others you come across before applying for a graduate role in retail, and especially before any interviews you might have. Retail trends and stories about particular retailers are often covered in the mainstream media, as well as in specialist news outlets. You can also research retail trends by looking at retailers’ websites – keep an eye out for information and press releases detailing any significant changes such as store closures or the introduction of new initiatives.

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