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Find the chosen few

Quantity doesn’t always mean quality when it comes to finding graduates for roles like merchandising.

Official figures show that for every graduate job in the UK in 2011, 45 people will apply.

With such a glut of applicants you’d expect fashion retailers to be filling graduate posts with ease, but this isn’t always the case. For certain roles it is proving increasingly difficult to find the rights skills and experience.

Merchandising and commercial web skills are in short supply, say recruiters. So what are fashion retailers doing to bridge these gaps?

Monsoon Accessorize head of resourcing Catherine McGill says: “Although we don’t have a graduate training programme, we do have many graduate opportunities across our global multichannel operation and are lucky because we attract a lot of attention. Filling junior buying and design roles is no problem, but we do struggle to find good entry-level merchandisers, including web merchandisers. It’s a common problem in fashion retail, and because there’s lots of movement in that area, there’s a constant need for managing succession.”

Hunting for talent

Monsoon Accessorize plans to tackle this problem by visiting universities and attending job fairs to promote merchandising as a good career opportunity. Arcadia Group is doing the same, and both businesses credit the Fashion Retail Academy, set up by Arcadia owner Sir Philip Green, with helping young people develop the skills required for modern retailing.

McGill says: “As an industry we don’t do enough to sell the role. Merchandising would appeal more widely if it had some positive PR behind it. After all, it’s about working in a creative environment, using analytical skills and is really at the commercial heart of the business. Also you don’t need a specialist degree for it. Merchandisers can have a business, geography or maths degree – any subject that has involved some numerical reasoning or use of statistics.”

As well as hiring graduates, Monsoon Accessorize offers annual placements for fashion design and technical students, to learn the ropes of design, pattern cutting and garment technology. It has worked with the Fashion Retail Academy since 2008 and provided a number of placements each year, in both stores and the head office. Generally, buying and design generates the most interest, says McGill. “We have to get people excited about going into stores and getting that crucial customer, product and operational experience that will stand people in good stead for long-term careers in retail.”

Lara Collins, group talent director at Arcadia Group, says recruiting for graduate entry-level roles is of great importance to Arcadia to ensure there is always a future talent pipeline identified and available for growth within the business. Every year, Arcadia recruits for more than 200 graduate entry-level roles in buying, merchandising and distribution across its fascias.

“Typically, a graduate would enter as a buying admin assistant, merchandising admin assistant or distributor, giving them the opportunity to progress to more senior roles,” says Collins.

“We continue to work with the Fashion Retail Academy and universities to educate graduates about the opportunities available.”

Steve Agace, director of consulting at recruitment firm Graduate Recruitment Bureau, says it’s more challenging than you might think to pinpoint the right people in the graduate market. “Often it boils down to the graduates having a limited view of the wide diversity of job roles that exist, and not thinking behind the obvious employers when targeting companies.”

For instance, newly qualified accountants might not realise there are likely to be finance and commercial analytics jobs in every large fashion retail company. Agace says: “If someone leaves Aston University with a business degree, and had spent their final year studying marketing, would they even think to apply to be a merchandiser?

“People leave university without knowledge of the scope of graduate opportunities out there for them, so it’s up to retailers and recruitment specialists to educate and market these jobs.”

He says there is the challenge of investing in the “raw material” of a bright graduate once they’ve been hired, making sure they develop the necessary commercial skills, a passion for product, good negotiating skills, communications skills and so on. “This is why graduate schemes are so effective, and why so many companies are introducing a structure for internships to help bridge that gap between degree and business experience,” says Agace.

“But there are cost considerations. If you look for a great attitude and aptitude, and then train them in the specialist skills of merchandising, supply chain, analytics or web marketing, you’re looking at upfront investment.”

Department store chain John Lewis says it takes on the majority of those who have done a placement while at university, for example. Meanwhile, Monsoon says it is looking into developing a graduate programme for store careers and internships for head office roles.

Dedication to the job

Henrietta Griffiths, recruitment consultant in the buying and merchandising division at recruitment firm Fashion & Retail Personnel, sees internships and holiday placements as vital for enhancing a graduate’s application when applying for jobs in buying and merchandising. “The numbers applying for these jobs is going up, so internships help applications stand out.

“It is surprising the amount of graduates who do not understand the retail function of buying and merchandising.”

No course can ever ensure a candidate a job on graduation, she says. “The candidate must fully research their course to ensure it covers what they want to study. Some courses offer a placement year which can be great to get that all-important experience within a buying and merchandising retail head office.”

One student following this advice is Rebecca Carter, who is just beginning her second year at Manchester Metropolitan University. Studying fashion buying, she has spent her summer bolstering her CV with work experience placements at head offices of retailers including Debenhams.

In addition, she believes it helps that her degree focuses on vocational skills. She says of her professors: “They have first-hand experience of what we will be doing when we come into the job.”

Fulfilling a need

The fashion retail sector can be grateful for the increasing numbers of young people graduating from the Fashion Retail Academy. More than 600 school and college leavers are enrolling this September, and new courses have been developed in line with the needs of employers who work closely with the academy.

Last year, a Higher Certificate in Fashion Retailing (Merchandising) was introduced and the first 27 graduates from this are entering the jobs market, while the same number are enrolling for September.

“We are here to offer young people an alternative to university and provide specialist vocational training for school leavers or people who have done A-levels who want to pursue a career in fashion retail,” says Helen Balfour, marketing manager at the Fashion Retail Academy. “We are all about bringing through a new generation of talent for the industry, and that means working closely with employers and industry influencers.”

Talent is out there, and young people’s perception of retail as a career is positive. Employers perhaps need to step forward and invest some time and resources into easing enthusiastic college leavers onto the first rung of the fashion retail career ladder. Career advancement and having challenging work are just as important to graduates as a high salary, so fashion retailers would do well to shout more loudly about what they can offer. 

Arcadia’s approach entry-level roles

Arcadia Group runs three graduate programmes and about 100 people are recruited to these schemes each year:

  • Retail management, where graduates are developed in order to undertake a deputy store manager’s role after 12 months
  • HR, a two-year programme in which graduates aim to achieve HR officer status by the end of the programme
  • Finance, a three-year programme where, if successful, they achieve the role of finance manager within the business

The retail facts

76.6%

is the increase in the number of graduate job vacancies retailers expect for 2010/11 compared with 2009/10

12.7%

of graduate vacancies will be in retail – making it the second biggest graduate employer after accountancy and professional services (20.6%)

£24,000

is the average graduate salary in retail (compared with £37,000 in law, £28,500 in banking, and the average UK starting salary of £25,500)

Source: Association of Graduate Recruiters

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