Are you being served?
On the surface, working in retail is simple: people want to buy things, and you help them do it. Peer below that surface though and you’ll find that retail demands all kinds of skills and can offer all kinds of opportunities for personal and professional development. And maybe staff discount on nice things, too.
Types of Apprenticeship
As well as the Retail Apprenticeship programme there’s a Retail Management Apprenticeship option for those aiming for a more senior role.
About the retail sector
Almost three million people were working in the UK retail sector last year. It takes in every kind of shopping experience: a retail job might mean working in a major high street store, a little independent shop or even behind the scenes for an online retailer. We love to shop (and when it comes to essentials, like food, we need to shop) and it shows in the numbers, with UK retail sales worth £339 billion in 2015.
What Can I Do?
Perhaps the most recognisable job in retail is the most visible one, which is working at the till to take money from customers and maybe help them pack up their shopping. Every shop has this – in some places, like supermarkets, there are dedicated checkout roles; in others, you’ll combine working on the till with other things.
Those ‘other things’ might include working on the shop floor, where you could be helping customers find what they need, making sure the shelves and displays are filled with products and generally keeping an eye on things. It’s another highly visible role.
Less visible but no less important are the background roles, which might see you working in the stockroom, or perhaps in the office of the shop. This can involve receiving deliveries, keeping track of what’s in the store, organising everything behind the scenes or taking care of admin tasks like cashing up or paperwork for the bank. For an online retailer there are lots of other roles, obviously demanding ICT skills.
Retail is often a good way to get management experience too, as the workforce tends to be young and you can be given a lot of responsibility early on.
Working in retail can mean being on your feet for much of the day. In a lot of stores you could be standing behind the till for your entire shift, walking around on the shop floor or even carrying produce out from the storeroom (or helping unload deliveries to the store). That doesn’t mean you need to have Olympic-level fitness, but you will need to be reasonably happy to be up and about for between eight and ten hours.
Success in retail is as much about your attitude as your technical knowledge. You’ll need to be friendly, conscientious and professional at all times, even when dealing with annoying customers, for example. That means being a good communicator, knowing your products and taking pride in them. In some roles you’ll be expected to actively sell to people, too, so you’ll need to be even more charming and persuasive; although in many cases you’ll get some training to help with this.
Because you’ll be working with tills, stock levels and so on, you’ll need to be fairly numerate and have decent ICT skills – don’t worry though, if you can use a smartphone, you’ll get your head around a POS (point of sale) system in no time. Even better, many of the skills you’ll develop – customer service, sales, teamwork and even management – will transfer nicely to other retail roles, so you’ll have lots of options for career progression.
Here are some of the job roles available in retail:
- sales assistant
- stockroom assistant
- beauty consultant
- visual merchandiser
- fresh food counter assistant
- senior sales assistant
- visual merchandiser supervisor
- craft expert (for example, bakery)
- style advisor (personal shoppers, retail consultant, stylist)
- supervisor or team leader
- department manager
- store manager (of a small outlet)
To find out what’s available near you, visit careermap.co.uk and search for vacancies. Many High Street chains (including big names like McDonald’s, KFC and Aldi) have their own Apprenticeship programmes, so it’s always worth investigating your local stores to see what’s on offer.
Routes into the retail sector include:
- Vocational qualifications / A Levels
- National Diplomas and Certificates
- Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Diplomas (HNDs)
- Foundation Degrees (England and Wales only)
- Bachelors Degrees
Because retail is such a wide-ranging and varied industry there are lots of roles at different levels and you don’t always need qualifications to get started. If you’re thinking retail might be for you, you could look to get some work experience or a weekend job in a local shop to see if it’s a good fit and to start developing skills that will be attractive to employers when you apply for Apprenticeships, etc. Think of it as a ‘try before you buy’ arrangement…
Levels of Apprenticeship
There are generally two levels of Apprenticeship offered in these areas. The one you choose will depend on your previous experience and qualifications:
Intermediate – equivalent to GCSEs / Standard Grades
Advanced – equivalent to A Levels / Highers
An intermediate Apprenticeship takes two years to complete, then you can continue for another year to achieve the Advanced level. If you don’t have the qualifications you need yet, a Traineeship can help fill in the gaps in your learning.
Life as a Retail Apprentice
Careers in retail are as varied as the retailers you could work for. Every shop or chain of shops has its own personality: some are friendly and laid-back, some are lively and noisy, and some are deliberately restrained and quiet, depending on what’s being sold and what image they want to create. Wherever you end up though, retail tends to require shift work and includes weekends, evenings and bank holidays, as well as busy periods like Christmas.
Once your Apprenticeship starts you might need to quickly adjust to early starts and long periods of being on your feet, with a ready smile for customers. You’ll be expected to know a lot about the products you’re selling, so there might be training in that alongside your Apprenticeship studies.
Retail tasks can be repetitive and the industry isn’t without its challenges. However, you might enjoy the constant contact with other people, the sense of being part of a team and the seasonal variation: every shop changes its stock throughout the year, so there are always new things to learn about. There are outlets for creativity, too, with careers like visual merchandising offering a chance to design and alter the way a store looks and how the place is laid out. It’s a cunning blend of psychology and art, which can affect the way shoppers behave and what they buy.
You could work in…
A retail Apprentice might be located in:
- a major department store
- a small independent boutique shop
- warehouses, stock rooms or back offices
Find Apprenticeships and jobs in retail near you at Careermap.co.uk