How do I get into retail, buying or fashion?

How do I get into retail?
We investigate how you can start a career in buying, merchandising, store management, fashion design and logistics.

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About apprenticeships About grad schemes Routes in Career progression Subject choice

Whichever retail role you are considering, there are two main ways in: either via an apprenticeship, which can be started after GCSEs or A levels (or equivalent), or joining a graduate scheme after you’ve completed an undergraduate degree.

About retail apprenticeships

Retail apprenticeships typically involve working in a particular retail role four days a week and going to college one day a week. The retailer pays for your training and pays you a wage. The aim is to train you up to do a specific job function, eg become a buyer.

There are three types of apprenticeship available: intermediate, advanced and higher. However, retailers tend to refer to them as level 2, level 3 and level 4 respectively. Level 4 apprenticeships tend to be aimed at those students with A levels – usually you need a minimum of two A levels or a certain number of UCAS points. You only need GCSEs to get onto a level 3 apprenticeship, but some retailers will accept you onto them if you have A levels.

About retail graduate schemes

If you decide to go to university to pursue a bachelors degree, you can join a retailer’s graduate scheme afterwards. Retailers’ graduate schemes typically last two years and are usually aimed at training future leaders of the business. For some, but not all, schemes you need to have attained a certain number of UCAS points and/or have achieved a 2.1 (the second highest class of degree).

There are some degrees available in retail-related subjects, such as retail management, buying, product design and technology, and fashion. However, many graduate schemes are open to graduates of all degree backgrounds.

Routes into different retail careers

The summaries below are intended to give you a brief overview of ways into each role. But the vacancies, entry requirements and career progression opportunities vary at different retailers, so it’s worth investigating what is available with individual employers.

You can find out more about what different retail careers involve in our feature ‘What types of jobs and employers are there in retail?’

How do I get into buying?

Opportunities: There are more graduate schemes or graduate-level vacancies than apprenticeships; there are a few buying-specific apprenticeships, which are mostly level 4, as well as some general/commercial/business-focused apprenticeships, which include time in a buying department.

Entry requirements: Graduate schemes typically accept applicants from any degree background, but some fashion retailers may ask you to have a fashion-related degree. Apprentices will typically need A levels in any subjects for level 4 apprenticeships.

How do I get into retail management?

Opportunities: There are lots of retail management graduate schemes. For school leavers, there are a few level 4 apprenticeships and many level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships in retail that could lead to departmental or store management.

Entry requirements: Graduate schemes typically accept applicants from any degree background; the retail management apprenticeships often ask for two A levels, but don’t specify subjects.

How do I get into fashion design?

Opportunities: Mostly individual vacancies, although there are a few graduate programmes.

Entry requirements: Vacancies are so hotly competed for that a degree in a fashion-related subject is pretty much mandatory if you want to stand a chance, even if a degree is not stated as a requirement on the job advertisement. Graduate programmes often explicitly ask for a design- or textiles-related subject.

How do I get into merchandising?

Opportunities: There are many more graduate schemes than apprenticeships. There are only one or two apprenticeships, which are mostly level 4.

Entry requirements: Most graduate schemes are open to graduates with any degree subject, but business-related subjects and those that involve a fair amount of maths are often preferred – the role is numbers-heavy. For apprenticeships, you'll need A levels or equivalent.

How do I get into retail logistics or supply chain management?

Opportunities: There are more graduate schemes than apprenticeships. There are a few level 4 apprenticeships, but more at level 2 and level 3.

Entry requirements: Some graduate schemes ask for specific subjects (eg logistics and supply chain management, engineering or science); a few will accept any subject. You'll need A levels for level 4 apprenticeships and GCSEs for lower levels.

How do I get into product and food technology?

Opportunities: These are niche retail careers; there aren’t as many opportunities as in other areas of retail. There are slightly more graduate-level vacancies than apprenticeships; available apprenticeships tend to be level 3.

Entry requirements: Graduate-level vacancies usually, but not always, require a related degree, such as in a food-specific, science, engineering or product design and technology subject.

How do I get into retail ecommerce?

Opportunities: Many graduate schemes or graduate-level vacancies; a few level 3 and 4 apprenticeships.

Entry requirements: Many retailers accept graduates with any degree subject, as long as you can demonstrate an interest in software and technology; a few want an IT-related subject. Apprenticeships don’t seem to require an ICT/IT/technology A level or GCSE.

If I do an apprenticeship, will my career progression be similar to a graduate’s?

It’s hard to say definitively what the potential for your career progression will be like, as it depends on you, the career decisions you make when you have gained more experience, your individual circumstances and the specific opportunities open to you.

However, retailers tend to be vague about what sort of job you will get at the end of your apprenticeship. Usually it is a job in a role closely related to your apprenticeship, but retailers give the impression that you are not given as much responsibility as a graduate would be.

For example, in retail management graduates usually become departmental or assistant store managers after their graduate programme, but many retail management apprenticeships don’t guarantee this; instead, some give only the best performers the chance to get onto a management training scheme and some give apprentices lower management roles. Aldi markets its area management scheme (which involves overseeing several stores) to graduates, while the best apprentices may be considered for an assistant manager role in a single store.

If you are considering an apprenticeship, it’s worth contacting individual retailers’ recruitment teams to find out what opportunities you are likely to be given at the end of your apprenticeship. In general, though, apprenticeships are good if you want to immediately start training in a role, become a specialist in it and then see where your career takes you, but graduate schemes are better if you want to get into a supervisory or leadership position quickly and have a more defined career path.

For roles that don’t specify A level or degree subjects, what subjects should I do?

If you are interested in a retail career that doesn’t require particular A level or degree subjects (which is most of them), your best bet is to choose the subject(s) in which you are likely to get the highest grades.

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