How To Get A Graduate Job In Retail With No Experience

We’ve all been there. You’ve seen the perfect job, but they want “experience” – and it feels harder to find than Mew in Pokémon Red. It might seem like the classic catch-22, but there are plenty of tricks you can use to get a graduate retail job without any experience.
Kim Connor Streich
Kim Connor Streich

We’ve all been there. You’ve seen the perfect job, but they want “experience” – and it feels harder to find than Mew in Pokémon Red. It might seem like the classic catch-22, but there are plenty of tricks you can use to get a graduate retail job without any experience.

From volunteering to stuff you’re already doing in your degree, you’ve probably got way more experience points than you think. It’s actually just a case of working out how to package it all up. So, in the spirit of sharing, here’s our whistlestop run through to getting that retail gig.

Why You Should Apply For A Graduate Job In Retail

Sure, “working in retail” might not sound like the most glamourous phrase, but there’s a lot more to it than your mum would have you realise, and it comes with a pretty sizable pay packet from the start. Companies such as Aldi, Marks & Spencer, Next, Tesco, and Boots all regularly run graduate schemes across several areas and you could be looking at a salary of anything up to ВЈ44,000pa.

It’s also worth saying here that working as a graduate in retail is a pretty diverse bag. Schemes from big employers include everything from store or area management to specialising in merchandising, buying, finance, e-commerce, or distribution. 

Unlike some other areas, retail graduate schemes also don’t tend to specify a degree, so it’s worth looking at if you’re not quite sure where you want to end up. Some employers will consider people with a final grade of 2:2 as well, so it’s a solid choice if you’re not quite sure how your grades will pan out yet. 

Like most other graduate schemes you’ll get intense training in your specialist area, often including further qualifications, and there’ll be a set career development plan. So, basically, your mum is wrong.

The Key Skills Retail Jobs Are Looking For

Before you try and work out what you should be putting in your applications for retail jobs, the key thing is to think about what hiring managers are looking for. You’ve got a lot more skills than you think you do, but it’s about pulling out the ones they’re looking for and putting them front and centre in your CV and cover letter.

Customer Service & People Skills

Even if you’re not going to be working in a job that interacts with the public directly, it’s important to remember that retail is all about people. Managers want you to not only be able to get along with others but to be able to empathise with them and provide a good experience. 

Working Under Pressure

If you’ve ever worked the early shift on the Next sale you’ll know what I’m talking about here, and working in a grad retail role is no different. Retail can be a high pressure environment at all levels, especially during peak times for customer demand. You’ll need to be able to keep calm, prioritise your tasks, and make sure you’re still keeping standards high.

Commercial Awareness

It sounds obvious, but the whole idea of retail is that people want to buy things – so you’ll be expected to know what kind of stuff the public wants to spend their cash on. Whether you’re working for a clothing chain or a supermarket, it’s all about what will be the next big seller, as well as the wider landscape. Brands will expect you to know who their main competitors are, for example, as well as how they are trying to position themselves.

Working And Managing A Team 

As with any medium to large business, it’s impossible to run a retail chain with just one person. If you did, it would be one very small retail chain, and one incredibly stressed owner. Managers want to hire people who are good at working and managing a team – which isn’t just about getting on with people. You’ll need to be diplomatic and sensitive to other people’s needs, as well as both able to get your own work done independently and see the bigger picture. 

How You Can Use Your Experience To Get The Job

Once you’ve worked out what retail managers are looking for, it’s a lot easier to think about how your experiences fit the bill. It’s worth shortlisting specific skills from individual job adverts too – broadly the aim of the game to draft a few bullet points you can add to your CV to back them up.

Even if you haven’t got buckets of paid experience, there are still plenty of places you can look to for the skills retail managers are looking for. Here are a couple to get you started:

Your Degree

Whatever you’re studying, the whole point of it is to make you more employable and that’s transferable across sectors. Yes, even you in the back studying oceanography will have something to impress retail bosses. 

Most degrees will have elements of group work and individual study, for example, which you can easily cash in as experience of working independently and as part of a team. Juggling deadlines and competing interests will also help you clock up experience points, as will an ability to think critically and solve problems. 

Also, think about what specialist skills you’ve gained from your degree. For example, if you’re studying a psychology degree can talk about your insights into why people make certain decisions. If you’re a soon to be media grad, you might want to talk about your ability to get messages across clearly.

University Societies

Sure, you might only be on the hockey team for the socials, but that doesn’t mean that’s all it’s good for. Committee positions can be a great starting point for CV experience –  you’re taking on added responsibility, potentially managing people, and will have to think strategically about your society’s goals for the academic year. You can have those ones on us.

If you’ve ever been part of running a fundraising drive for your society, that’s also a great way to sell your skills in commercial awareness. You’ll not only have had to create rewards that people want to give you money for, but also engage with them about why they should buy into your society or brand.

What You Buy

If like us, your student loan is spent as soon as it touches your bank account, there are positives. It sounds simple, but to work in retail you need to understand what people are buying and if you’re a person who’s buying that’s a plus. Fashion chains, for example, are infinitely keener to hire people who are into fashion, as they know the landscape. Do your research, look for companies in areas you’re passionate about, and let them know you’re an avid consumer.


Finally, remember that experience doesn’t mean you have to have been paid. For almost any career you might be looking to get into, there will almost certainly be a charity or community group looking for help. Charity shops are always looking for volunteers –  and not just for on the shop floor either.

Picking up some shifts to help them sort through the best stock will show that you know what sells while helping them spruce up their social media gives you plus points for strategy and digital. 

Think about all of the elements that go into a retail job, and look for opportunities to fill a range of them. These don’t have to be regular gigs either – even just helping out on an open day can show your ability to chat to the public and deliver a set product.   

Putting Together A CV For Retail Jobs

We’ve put together a full guide to acing your CV here, but in short, you need to focus on what you’ve achieved in a practical sense. Whether you’re talking about your degree or a society you’re part of, break down exactly what skills and responsibilities you took on and what you achieved. It might sound basic, but even little things like using bullet points make a huge difference to someone who has piles of CVs to look through. 

Break up your experience into sub-headings, and make sure you’re always focused on how each one relates to the retail job you’re applying for. While it’s useful to have a master CV you can come back again and again, you should be changing it every time you apply for a different retail job. The main thing a manager will be looking at is that you really want to work for them – it’s easy to spot when someone is just reusing the same CV. 

We tend to go through the job advert with a highlighter to spot the buzzwords, before going back and making sure they’re all addressed in our CV. Your profile section at the top of your CV is also a good place to highlight the key skills in the job description, and how your experience fits the bill. You can then go into more details in your cover letter. It’s basically about making someone’s life easier – if you’re always thinking about how your skills can help them, you won’t go too wrong.

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