Close your eyes for a minute and think about the word “retail.” What’s the first image that pops into your head? A summer job folding shirts? Riding the mall escalator with friends? The latest deals on Amazon.com?
Now imagine interning at a big-name retailer, helping to create a new product line, promoting a brand through social networks or even being your own boss. Retail offers all of this and more.
Ellen Davis, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation (NRF), says that career opportunities in the retail industry are endless. “Very rarely can someone name a career path that I can’t find in retail,” Davis says. [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]“[Retail] is expanding so rapidly that positions are filled today that didn’t even exist five years ago.”[/tweetthis]
‘A Badge of Honor’
In response to this growth, retailers are creating and enhancing internship and career development programs, while more colleges and universities are adding retail-related resources, courses and degrees, Davis adds. “Our grads go on to work in everything from product development, logistics [getting products where they need to be], store management and buying and planning, to human resources, finance and accounting and systems technology,” says Jerry O’Brien, director of The Kohl’s Department Stores Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In an industry with endless opportunities, how do you start narrowing down a career path that’s right for you? [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]“I think there’s no better first step than to find a part-time job in retail — it’s like a badge of honor,”[/tweetthis] Davis says. “In addition to providing a valuable skill set, these jobs help teens gain a broader understanding of all the moving parts in retail.”
Internships are also hugely valuable in helping students gauge their own passions, strengths and weaknesses. Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, for example, has a robust college recruitment and talent development program for its five brands, which includes a summer internship for 90 select interns from around the world. Most of Urban Outfitters’ interns go into buying and design, but others can test-drive careers in marketing, talent development, merchandising, graphic design and photography. Urban Outfitters welcomes student interns who major in all different subjects, from English and art history to philosophy.
Thea Kwan explored retail through internships before landing her current position as a planner in men’s sportswear for Macy’s in New York City. While studying economics and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, she decided to join a retail club on campus to learn about job options. “That piqued my interest in retail, so I began seeking out internships with retailers in order to learn even more about the industry,” she says.
As a result, Kwan interned at Hugo Boss and Perry Ellis, where she was introduced to a broad range of opportunities to apply her skills. After narrowing down her interests to merchandising, she applied for and was accepted into Macy’s merchant and planning executive development program four years ago. Since then, she has steadily advanced within the company.
Davis also suggests using the Internet to learn about opportunities in retail. For example, the NRF highlights retail careers through its “This is Retail” campaign. Many retailers, like Nordstrom’s, JC Penney, REI and Macy’s, have websites dedicated to career opportunities and training within their companies.
Here’s an interesting stat: According to the NRF, [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]retailers hire more finance employees than Wall Street and more engineers than Silicon Valley[/tweetthis]. “A finance-related position in retail is perfect for those who have both analytical and creative sides,” says O’Brien. “Financial teams are typically involved with supporting the merchant, marketing, store functions and growing the bottom line [referring to the company’s net income or loss].”
To promote and support in-house positions in finance, many retailers offer training programs. As part of its executive development program, Macy’s exposes its new finance and accounting hires to a variety of departments and the opportunity to interact with all levels of management.
A lot is also happening right now for retailers when it comes to collecting, organizing and analyzing large sets of data, a.k.a. Big Data Analytics. “All of this valuable data is being generated, but retailers need people with real math acumen who understand how to interpret it and keep it safe,” O’Brien says.
Working with the Digital Team
The influence of the Internet on retail is powerful, especially in areas like sales and social media. It may be a mere click of the button to purchase your favorite sneakers, but in reality a team of tech-savvy employees is responsible for making the online and mobile shopping experiences as easy as possible. [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]“A tremendous amount of technology and digital innovation is spreading through retail[/tweetthis],” says Martha Van Gelder, director of the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing at The University of Arizona. “This is being driven by a realization that to be effective, retailers need both an online presence and bricks-and-mortar location.”
Kelly McCamley can still remember flipping through retail catalogues that arrived in the mail with her mother. Now, as a junior in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s retail program, she gets to see what’s involved in creating virtual catalogues. During a recent internship with JC Penney, McCamley got to help the retailer’s digital team launch its new brand online. “This experience taught me that retail is always changing and you have to be able to adapt very quickly,” she says. [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]“You can’t just stick with what you know; you have to be innovative.”[/tweetthis]
That innovation extends to social media, where companies like Urban Outfitters are building a formidable online presence through blogs and on Instagram and Twitter. Yes, it’s a promotional platform, but it is also a critical way for retailers to relate to and engage with their customers even when they are not shopping in stores.
And, of course, the entrepreneurial spirit is thriving in the retail sector. The media is full of success stories like Johnny Cupcakes, an apparel store selling t-shirts and other clothing and accessories created by 20-something Johnny Earle.
Or maybe you’ve been following Matt Elam’s unique story, which has been making headlines. Driven by a dream to eventually open his own sports merchandise store, the 22-year-old safety for the Baltimore Ravens decided to spend his NFL off-season working in retail. As a result, he applied for and was hired as a part-time sales associate at a Finish Line store in a mall in Gainesville, Fla. [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]“I just need to get retail knowledge,”[/tweetthis] Elam said in an interview posted on the team’s website. “That’s basically what I’m doing. I’m getting that knowledge for when it’s time.” Elam added: [tweetthis alt=”” hashtag=”” url=””]“I didn’t realize there was so much organization, so much planning. I didn’t realize there was so much to it.”[/tweetthis]
You can also hone your entrepreneurial skills on college campuses, notes Van Gelder. For example, students at the Terry J. Lundgren Center can get involved with the Retail Entrepreneurship Club (REC), which strives to expose those with an entrepreneurial spirit to real-life experiences that cultivate skills needed to take on new ventures. Sarah Cobb, REC president and a retailing and consumer sciences senior, sees particular value in hearing the experiences of other retail entrepreneurs during the club’s annual ThinkBig Conference. “They teach how they did it and what they overcame, their obstacles and challenges,” she told her school paper, The Daily Wildcat.
The retail business is full of challenges – and the experts agree that the best way to navigate them, whether as an entrepreneur, buyer, merchandiser or social media expert, is to go to work and explore.
Why do you think retailers hire more finance employees than Wall Street and more engineers than Silicon Valley?
What drives the emphasis behind getting work experience in a retail store? Name three important ways a part-time job folding shirts might help you prepare for a career in retail.
Choose one career path in retail and explore it more deeply. Merchandiser? Buyer? Internet design? What did you learn? Can you see yourself in that position? Why or why not?