Careers in Retail

See also: Personal Development

The obvious definition of a career in retail is ‘working in a shop’. However, there is far more to the retail world—and its close relations in wholesale—than simply the shop floor. There is a wide range of careers linked to retail and wholesale, and at many levels. These run from sourcing and buying products through management of shops and inventory, to working on the shop floor in various roles.

Like other businesses, retailers and related businesses also employ people in ‘standard’ business roles, including finance, marketing, and human resources. These roles are not covered on this page, because they are not specific to retail businesses. However, you can find out more about these careers in our page on Careers in Business.

Types of Retail Businesses vs Types of Jobs

There are many different types of retail businesses, both in terms of size, and the goods or products they supply. This makes a big difference to both the types of jobs and the experience of working there.

It would clearly be absurd to suggest that working in a supermarket was the same as working in a small greengrocer’s shop, even though most of the goods available at the greengrocer’s will also be available in the supermarket. Similarly, working in a large bookshop will not be the same as working in a large clothes shop or furniture store because of the range of goods available, and the needs of customers.

However, in both cases, there will be similar roles within both the business and the individual store.

For example, almost all stores employ cashiers: people who operate the tills and take payment from customers. Similarly, most stores also have a manager. They also have someone who buys the products to go on the shelves. However, that person may be considerably further away from the store in bigger retail businesses than in a greengrocer or butcher’s shop, where the owner is likely to order goods themselves or even attend a market each day.

Follow your interests when choosing an employer

Even if the jobs are the same in most types of store, there is no question that the experience of working there will vary.

If you are interested in a career in retail, the general advice is to follow your interests in choosing a retail employer.

You will be far more engaged as an employee, and better able to help customers, if you are interested in the products, and have bought, used or worn them yourself. You will also get more value out of any perks such as a staff discount.

Roles in Retail Businesses

There are a wide range of jobs available in retail businesses. These include:

  • Buyers

    Buyers are responsible for sourcing, selecting and ordering goods for the shop to stock, and ultimately for customers to buy. They must therefore understand what customers want—which may include analysing trends and fashions—and work out how to deliver that at a price customers will pay. They are responsible for finding and negotiating with suppliers to get goods at the right price. They must also agree delivery schedules to ensure that shops have products when they are needed.

    Buyers therefore need:

  • Shop or store managers

    Shop managers are responsible for organising and managing the overall operation within a single retail store. They are therefore responsible for leading and managing staff in the store, translating directives from head office into reality, delivering a good experience for customers, and responding to any customer comments and complaints.

    Store managers therefore need:

    Our guest posts on the skills needed by a good retail manager and the five key skills for a successful career in retail management provide more information. You may also be interested in our page about how to motivate retail workers.

    Layers of management

    In larger retail businesses, some managers may be responsible for several stores within a geographical area. Stores may also have intermediate levels of management, such as floor managers, team leaders or supervisors.

    These roles all need similar skills to store managers.

  • Cashiers

    Cashiers are responsible for operating systems to take payment from customers. They therefore need to be able to interact with customers, including answering questions and explaining issues. They must also be able to operate machinery and electronic sales equipment such as tills or self-scanners. Cashiers therefore chiefly need two skills:

    • Good customer service skills, and the ability to remain calm under pressure; and
    • Ability to learn to operate a till and understand and apply shop or company policies and procedures for things like gift card purchases.

  • Shop floor workers, including shelf stockers, sales associates and internet shoppers

    Stockers are responsible for placing goods on shelves, and ensuring that products are available for customers to buy. Sales associates are responsible for helping customers to find the goods they need. Internet shoppers are responsible for fulfilling online orders from stock available in store.

    These are all separate tasks. However, the same staff may be required to do all three jobs, either in the same shift, or on different days. They may also work as cashiers at other times. It is therefore worth considering them as a whole, especially since they need similar skills.

    Shop floor workers need:

    • Good customer service skills, because they may have to respond to customer queries at any time, and regardless of which task they are currently performing; and
    • Good team-working skills and communication skills, because staff work closely together, and often have to pick up each other’s tasks at short notice and at busy times.

  • Visual merchandisers (store display creators)

    Visual merchandisers are responsible for creating displays in shops and stores to show products off to customers. This may be in windows, or on display stands around the store. You may be more aware of this role in clothes shops, but visual merchandisers also create displays in other stores, including home goods stores, and even supermarkets.

    Visual merchandisers have a range of skills including:

    • Good commercial awareness, and an understanding of what customers like and want;
    • An ability to design and then create attractive displays, including sourcing props and materials to add to the products where necessary; and
    •  Good team-working skills to enable them to work closely with other staff and contractors to meet the store’s needs for visual displays.

  • Inventory (or stock or warehouse) managers

    Inventory managers are responsible for ensuring that a store or shop has the right amount of stock available at any given time. This is a huge responsibility: too little, and customers go away empty-handed and unhappy. Too much, and the shop has money tied up in stock that may not sell. This role therefore has a direct impact on the shop’s bottom line.

    Inventory managers manage a team of warehouse employees, who receive, record and send out stock, keeping careful track of how much is available. They liaise with suppliers on volume and delivery times, and are also responsible for reordering when stock gets low.

    Inventory managers therefore have:

    • Good management skills, to enable them to run teams of warehouse employees;
    • Good analytical skills and attention to detail, to understand and interpret stock volumes and customer trends, and translate those into the need to order new stock;
    • Commercial awareness, to enable them to understand the financial and commercial implications of their decisions; and
    • Good communication skills, to work effectively with suppliers, team members and store management.

    Many of the skills needed by inventory managers are also needed in wholesale distribution. You can find out more about this in our guest post on the skills needed to run a wholesale distribution business.

A Final Word

The retail sector provides both a clear employee experience and almost unparalleled variety of roles and jobs available.

However, most roles share a requirement for good commercial expertise and/or customer service skills, plus a wish to work in a fast-paced environment with lots going on. If you have these, you are likely to be able to thrive in retail.