I want a career in a supermarket... said nobody ever
Updated: May 30
Retail is one of the most challenging environments to work in. It is a thankless task where the work is never done and colleagues are constantly battling between serving customers, filling the shop and executing the latest head office instructions. We all remember the pandemic and the recognition of the importance of shop workers through that time. Alongside the shop floor staff, there are a host of other activities that it takes to get the products to the shelves.
Here is an overview of the types of work that go on in Retail and the huge opportunities that can help you move across a diverse set of career paths by simply starting in a store.
As an example and very briefly my career started as a soap powder and toilet roll boy, working evenings and weekends replenishing aisles and covering tills. After passing the trainee manager scheme, I spent 22 years working my way around manager roles in store, before going up to head office for the next 19 years. I worked as a Supply Chain analyst and then onto Marketing where I ran a corporate bonus scheme. On the way, I took an HND in computing, paid for by the company and learnt how to code and build databases. I somehow became a bit of an IT guru as being there for so long, I knew how the legacy systems worked, long after the owners of those systems left. I found myself supporting IT teams and operational teams by using my Retail, Supply Chain and system knowledge. I know many other people who started on the shop floor like me and found themselves in roles they would never have considered. If you put the effort in, the opportunities are huge and the rewards good..
The store environment
The shop floor remains the heart of the supermarket experience. Over recent years and especially since the pandemic, more of the store trade has moved to online ordering and supermarkets have expanded their small store offering, but the weekly shop still remains the single largest revenue stream. Here is a view of the typical activities in store
Over the years, the store management structure has been flattened with fewer managers looking after larger sections of the store. The diversity of the store operation introduces you to a wide set of skills from managing short life fresh foods, to controlling a complex checkout operation or baking fresh bread. Ultimately the career progression leads to running a whole store, which is the equivalent of running a business taking between £100K to £2 million per week and managing up to 500 staff
Today, the role of a store manager extends beyond the four walls of the store to ensuring delivery vans are insured and roadworthy and petrol stations are safe. Typically many stores will be involved with the local community and local charities. The store is sometimes the largest employer in a town and the manager will attend the Chamber of Commerce meetings and other civic functions.
Behind the customer visibility, there are many back-end processes including scheduling staff over a 24/7 window, inventory maintenance of millions of pounds of stock, keeping up to date on seasonal event management and general range reviews and delivering the store Profit and Loss targets which range from heating and lighting costs to consumables in store and the largest element, labour cost.
Stores and colleagues are bound by a host of laws around safety and welfare, (colleague and customer), trading standards, BWS and game licencing.
Oh and then there is the small task of filling the shop, managing the checkouts and dealing with shoplifting.
At the start of each day, online orders are picked by a dedicated shopping crew and in the larger stores, there could be thousands of pounds taken before the store opens to the public. These are fast paced operations that need good management skills and accuracy. This picking goes on whilst deliveries are being received and "the shift" is still replenishing the store, getting it ready for opening.
Ambient and long life fresh food displays tend to be replenished overnight or through the day on a one touch basis, often by a dedicated shift crew and shift manager, so once a delivery is put out, there should be no need to revisit it until the next order arrives. Most displays are dressed to hold more stock than sales on the busiest day, but for promotions and seasonal lines and shorter life fresh food lines, there has to be in day replenishment and ongoing tidying.
Trading managers run the store during the day and evening, reporting into the store manager. Usually there is a handover between each shift to ensure continuity and update on staffing levels which must be scheduled across the whole 24 hour window to cover all shifts. Store security is a major concern with theft on the increase, so minimising loss is the other pre-eminent concern in store.
Managing these processes requires practical and soft skills which are transferrable. Learning these skills is the first step on a career path to becoming a store manager.
Most retailers support store management through regional managers. This higher level can see region managers looking after 20-30 stores and higher retail director positions managing 150 plus stores This can be a promotion route for experienced managers, or alternatively you may seek a head office role advertised internally. There are very good opportunities for upward movement in retail and diversification into other carer paths
Beyond the store and region world there is the head office and distribution networks. Often the company owns a number of strategically placed depot sites near motorways but tenders out the running of the depot to a third-party logistics firm. With operations of over 100 lorries each and a constant supply of workload, these are large operations in of themselves. The overall control of the Supply Chain remains with the retailer, which can be a way into the world of trucks and sheds.
Head offices are set up into divisions such as, Retail, Supply Chain, Trading, IT, HR, Marketing, Finance and Property, all loosely connected with the aim of delivering for the stores (although the term ivory tower is banded about quite a bit and sometimes justified). These are the key operational divisions or functions. It is often the case you start your head office career in Central Retail, starting with what you know and then move on as you develop new skills.
Central Retail is the extension upwards of the store and region structure. The main purpose is to support stores by being the voice of Retail across the head office functions. This involves implementing new trials, owning store procedures and FM services, crisis managing events, assessing risk and owning store security. They will manage the central reporting and achievement of sales, Profit and Loss (P&L) targets and work closely with IT, Trading, HR and Supply Chain teams in the main.
Trading: is the buying and product technology function. Traders source new products from existing and new suppliers who then go through a rigorous onboarding process. Products are tested; packaging and price and what depots it will go into are agreed and then into which stores it will be ranged. Merchandisers will create Planograms identifying where product sits on the shelf, how many facings wide they will be and expected weekly sales and waste allowances established. Buying teams will manage range reviews, promotions and the ongoing supplier relations. These guys tend to be highly mathematical and extremely quick thinking. They are driven almost exclusively by profit and sales targets. Product Technologists will ensure safety and quality standards are met and will onboard new suppliers and work with vets to randomly visit suppliers and test products for compliance. Traders mainly collaborate with Supply Chain, Central Retail and IT departments.
Central Supply Chain: manages the depot network and the order forecasting. Almost all product ordering is centralised through complex algorithms. Stores only need to maintain their inventory and ensure their shelf capacities are correct. Supply Chain teams are supplier, store and Trading facing as they are the lynchpin of the operation.
Forecast systems use historic sales, Bayesian updates and other live feeds to create a future forecast, which is then turned into orders for delivery across the next week. Inventory and sales data is taken at the last possible point before an order is created, so the most up to date data is used in the calculations.
The weather plays a huge role in the forecast which can be entirely different across the country. Issues like widespread snow, with roads closed, depots and stores inaccessible, drivers unable to get to work are huge challenges, especially when panic buying starts.
Products are ordered on a “Just in Time” basis to avoid tying up working capital. There is little stock held in the warehouses, most of it is turned around when it arrives. In fact due to the complex ranges depots deliver, suppliers often deliver to hub depots, where several smaller suppliers loads are condensed onto one lorry, which then goes on to the main distribution centre. This is because the main depot cannot handle the volume of smaller deliveries. Suppliers face fines if they do not meet their delivery slot.
Logistics: Working in the logistics sheds will often involve anti-social shifts at first, working in chillers and freezers possibly overnight and at the weekends. It is a highly target driven atmosphere and safety is a prime consideration. Logistics management will be in charge of the procurement of drivers and vehicles, their maintenance and the accurate and on time delivery of inbound and outbound orders. They must meet picking accuracy and waste targets and are a huge, but often forgotten area out of sight of customers.
Marketing: is an entirely different discipline. People who work in marketing often see their career as working across agencies and large and small clients and as category managers in suppliers. Working for a Supermarket is a transient step and is seen as time served as they build their profile.
This is all about promoting products and campaigns through above the line and below the line media, so TV, print media, social media and local marketing are common methods. Sometimes they will have responsibility for the customer metrics as they are independent of the Retail/Trading/Supply Chain triumvirate, who might be accused of marking their own homework otherwise. They also host charity and sustainability roles.
Loyalty Card data is managed here for the analytics of shopping behaviours and onward sale of aggregated data to suppliers. External agencies work with marketing teams on category performance compared to competitors, the success of campaigns and the testing of adverts for reach, attribution and conversion. Marketers work closely with Trading teams to identify opportunities and new trends. Social media and focus groups are key to reaching new customers. People in this area tend to have come from a Marketing degree background, but the great news is this is a fantastic way into that world for anyone seeking entry into the world of marketing.
These are the main operational areas, but other equally important areas include IT, who keep all the systems running; Finance who manage the top down budget and legal reporting; HR, who manage the welfare and safety of the business; Property services because even if every store closed, the business would be massively valuable as a property company; and Legal and Press, who manage the public communications and protect the company interests. Apologies for those other departments I have missed.
These can all spawn separate careers where you can learn transferrable and academic skills, often paid for by the business.
If nothing else, Retail gives you a broad outlook on society at large, but if you make the effort, you can find yourself in an entirely unexpected career. There is a definite advantage to cultivating working relationships and as you raise your profile, new doors open to you..