The retail sector is the UK's largest private sector employer and, in 2013, UK retail sales alone were more than £321 billion. It is a highly competitive industry with significant rewards for those retailers that get the magic consumer formula right.
Many top retailers are household names and all have become successful because of their clear understanding of what their customers want, an ability to think differently and the courage of their convictions in terms of implementing their vision.
Just think of Jeff Bezos at Amazon, who boldly moved from books to world domination or Angela Ahrendts who became CEO of Burberry. Closer to home there is also Chrissie Rucker of The White Company. Who could imagine that a business just selling white products could become so successful?
Chris McManus, deputy general manager of L'Occitane, has many years of experience in retail, beginning her career at Marks & Spencer. She advises that to be successful one needs "a passion for the brand, the company, the products and the service experience. Without it, it's impossible to give 100% and anything less is the difference between success and failure".
Retail is a career with many entry points, from those who start on the shop floor and work their way towards a managerial role to those who do a retail management or broader business degree and start as a management trainee, commanding an initial salary of between £18,000 and £25,000. Many big retailers have management trainee schemes, with M&S, Tesco, John Lewis and Arcadia among the most popular.
Jenna Greening, junior business analyst at Monica Vinader, graduated two years ago with a first class degree in fashion marketing and was offered a place by M&S. She snapped this up, knowing there is fierce competition each year for the 50 or so places on its prestigious training programme.
Gaining operational experience in a store is important. It helps you understand what the teams face on a daily basis, including the expectations and behaviour of customers and the thrill of meeting and exceeding key performance indicators, which you may eventually be set.
You will also need to develop a broad range of personal attributes and skills. Intuition is key, as is the ability to listen and interrogate the data, responding quickly to emerging trends. You need to be highly numerate and agile with financial information, as daily sales figures will inform your actions.
A really strong alignment with the brand and products, together with the ability to translate that into everything from the look and feel of stores to hiring decisions, is also vital.
Marc Adams-Facchini, director for the flagship store of fashion designer Roksanda Ilinicic in Mount Street, Mayfair, strongly agrees. "In my role, I can be meeting a VIP to discuss a bespoke commission, conducting team training, working alongside a stylist to do a seasonal pre- selection and reviewing sales figures, all in one very long and busy day. But I absolutely love it because I feel so connected with the brand."
At the peak of a career in retail, you can earn a six-figure salary, with a bonus and/or commission and stocks and shares as part of the package. People working in retail with a background in the military, hotel management, teaching and accountancy do exist but generally it is a sector with a more traditional approach to recruitment, favouring pure retail backgrounds.
Yang Yu is head of retail at Monica Vinader and has an accounting background. She says: "The best and worst part of my role is finding and opening new stores. The London property market is becoming hotter and hotter. Getting your brand in the right location is a real deal breaker but when you do, the buzz of planning and opening the new store is so exciting."
A trend affecting many companies is the rise of e-commerce and now m-commerce (mobile commerce), with bricks-and-mortar retail increasingly serving as a ‘third space' that's only partly about transactions. It's just as much about the overall customer experience and creating a unique and engaging environment both on- and offline.
McManus adds: "Retail is such a varied career. I can honestly say that every day is different but one thing that never changes is the habit that all retailers have of watching the weather slot after the news; no retailer wants snow at Christmas!"
Ruth Cornish is an HR consultant with more than 25 years experience. Visit ruthcornish.com for more info.