When picturing retail jobs, perhaps you imagine standing at a cash register ringing up individual transactions with customers. Certainly that image is valid, but the retail industry offers so much more. A vast spectrum of careers, enlisting nearly every interest and talent, awaits the initiated.
The National Retail Federation (NRF), defines retailing, in its simplest form, as "the timely delivery of goods and services demanded by consumers at prices they can afford." That covers countless businesses, and today's most common retail establishments include everything from department stores, discount/mass merchandisers and specialty stores to warehouse superstores, wholesale clubs, factory outlets, and catalog stores. In the US alone, more than one million retailing companies operate more than 1.4 million retail establishments.
Are You Ready?
A high school education is the first step to a retail career. Many high schools offer special business or retail curriculums with work-study opportunities, and guidance counselors or school libraries can provide additional information.
Further education will increase your prospects and value in the retail industry. Specialized management positions may require a college degree or more specific business administration courses. In general, courses in marketing, communications, finance, management, merchandising, and information systems are helpful. Investigate whether your college of choice offers appropriate courses or even a retailing degree.
Retail is one industry where newcomers can plunge right in. Seasonal and part-time employment opportunities abound, and provide the chance to experience or observe various aspects of the business beyond the cash register, including customer relations, marketing, and inventory management.
Are You Right for Retail?
Whether working the register or behind the scenes, a few key traits are indispensable. Foremost is people skills and the ability to serve customers as well as effectively interact with co-workers. Also important is flexibility, the capacity to acclimate within the ever-changing retail marketplace and perform myriad duties. Analytical skills are a must, as are the abilities to establish priorities and take responsibility. Finally, the ability to perform under the pressures of this fast-paced industry is essential.
Dale Pete, assistant manager at the Men's Wearhouse in San Jose's Westgate Mall, says, "Anyone working in retail must be responsible and reliable. Daily routines must be followed, and to prove yourself, you must be able to get the job done." Christine Carmody-Sinats, regional vice president of the FAO Schwarz specialty stores, adds, "We joke that the most critical characteristic is endurance, but honestly, retail can be grueling. You need to be able to prioritize easily and quickly - commonly, decisions must be made on the spot. Also, to advance, you have to love the business and thrive on the intensity."
Because entry-level retail positions usually require no more than a high school education, college and even high school students can gain a foothold in the business. These entry-level spots may be used as a springboard to higher positions, making retail one of the most promising fields for those willing to work hard.
Jason Huber started with Wal-Mart as a sales floor associate at age 18, and now, six years later, has been promoted through the ranks to assistant manager at his store near Sacramento. He is "proud of how far I've come without a college degree.
I started college, but then weighed continuing college with working my way up through the company, and decided to concentrate my efforts on the job." Huber's choice has garnered him a salary that has already enabled him to buy a house at age 24. Though pleased with his position, he looks forward to further advancement, striving to eventually step up to co-manager.
A college education may open doors at higher levels from the start. Carmody-Sinats, recruited straight from college into her regional management position, has a bachelor's degree in industrial design and an associate's degree in business management with an emphasis on retailing. As a student, she enhanced her own education by working in retail, an experience she sees as a "tremendous benefit" that allowed her to learn on the job. She credits her educa-tion with not only giving her exposure to industry professionals and basic business skills, but also as an announcement to the world of her serious approach to the business. "My education was very valuable. I've met people who never had a day of college and have done very well, but a basic business education gives a firm foundation and can certainly give an advantage."
Is Retail Right for You?
Retail job opportunities are nearly limitless, with innumerable career paths and substantial promotional possibilities. The role of sales clerk is the most common entry point for retail career paths. Nearly every department within retailing has use for entry-level employees and can provide advancement opportunities. Sales clerks with dedication and industry savvy can be promoted in almost any direction, including sales, merchandising and buying, finance and internal auditing, management, marketing, logistics, inventory control, and human resources.
Many options related to retailing exist beyond cashiers and sales clerks, including computer operators, shipping and receiving clerks, truck drivers, fashion designers, tailors, inventory auditors and security guards. Even careers not traditionally associated with the industry are needed throughout - landscape planners, tax specialists, architects, engineers, and real estate professionals, to name a few. Examples given by the NRF of more traditional positions found in large chain or department stores for executive-bound employees include:
- Retail management trainee, a common entry-level position that exposes employees to many aspects of the business, such as merchandising, finance, marketing, operations and human resources. Promotion from entry-level may take place within two years.
- Assistant buyer, another position for management trainees in which they assist retail buyers and learn merchandise selection, order writing, receiving, delivery and follow-up. Promotion may take a year or two.
- Buyer, the position responsible for planning sales, inventory and receipts, as well as merchandise selection, and writing and pricing orders. Also responsible for sales and inventory management. Four to five years experience is typically needed.
- Divisional merchandise manager, responsible for several merchandise departments and corresponding buyers. Must ensure consistent quality, price and value for customers, and maintain vendor relations, visit markets, and help educate the buying team. Generally, eight to ten years of experience is expected.
Nationwide, 20 million workers are employed in the retail industry - that's one in five American workers - and the US Department of Labor predicts an increase to 24 million workers by 2005. California, New York, Florida and Texas, account for nearly 30 percent of all retail workers. Over the past ten years the retail sector has created 700,000 jobs, 13 percent of all new jobs in the US.
Retail will continue to grow and evolve with new technology and a growing population with growing demands. With such astounding numbers, the retail industry is looking for a few good prospects to take part in what looks to be a very bright future.