What Does it Take to Work in Retail?

  • 30 Jan 2015

Thinking of heading into retail straight after school? Following a school leaver programme route has the added bonus of gaining a qualification and developing a broader range of skills whilst you work. Kate Nicholls, School Leaver Programme Manager at Pret A Manger, let us in on what it takes to work in retail for Pret A Manger as a school leaver.


What is the first thing you notice about any application for a school leaver programme in retail?

I look for a few things: Is it fully completed? How well is it written (i.e spelling and grammar), and probably most importantly I look for personality of the applicant: Do they use humour? Have they demonstrated a drive and determination? 

Do you have any advice on what not to say in a school leaver application? Any cliché or well- worn phrases to avoid?

Don’t use jargon and don’t leave gaps on your form.

Retail is a well-known sector for offering fast career progression. When you look at applications for school leavers programmes, are you profiling the retail managers of your company’s future? How does this affect your decisions?

No, not for our programme.  The aim of our programme is to grow and develop individuals and give them confidence at work.  We look for people who have a passion for food and retail and a drive to succeed. If they do develop into Manager’s in the future then of course that’s a great bonus to us but it isn’t what we look for at this stage.

How would you describe the recipe for a perfect school leavers application for retail?

A perfect application is one that is well completed and thought through.  It is one where you can see that the applicant has taken the time to think about their answers, done their research on Pret and really wants the job. I look for people who show they have the potential to work well in a team, communicate well with the customers and of course have the drive to develop themselves while they are on the programme.

If you run assessment days as part of your hiring process, can you let us in on some of the tasks students can expect? What skills are you looking for school leavers to demonstrate here?

Our assessment day is designed to show if the candidate has the following behaviours: Passion, Clear Talking; and Team work.  So for example the first exercise is one where candidates introduce each other (for this we look to see whether candidates have asked the other person about themselves, listened to all they have said and have they communicated well).

We also use exercises that are specific to our industry of Food & Retail (as that’s what we need at Pret).  These exercises assess knowledge of our industry and product while also showing how passionate a candidate is about the job.  So when preparing for an assessment day my advice would be to expect to be assessed on behavioural and technical skills that would be needed for the job.

How can a school leaver best use their time at school to prove they have the skills needed to succeed on this programme?

Extra-curricular activities are great as they can be used to demonstrate behaviours such as teamwork and communication.  For us work experience is also good, but not essential as we realise it is hard to get this experience.  Volunteering activities show a determination and a ‘can do’ attitude.  There are also some great examples that can be used from achievements at school – for example team tasks, course work etc. Don’t be afraid to describe when you’ve failed at something but then worked hard to make it better to succeed.

Due to their age, it’s likely some school leaver programme applicants will have no experience in the retail sector. How can candidates demonstrate their passion for retail despite this?

Everyone experiences retail even if they don’t work in the industry so therefore candidates should give examples of when they have had good or bad service. How could they do this better themselves?  Candidates should actually visit the shop/retail outlet so they are knowledgeable about the product and the customer experience involved.  Company websites also provide a lot of detail that can be used. Even if the candidate doesn’t have experience they can show their passion through the research they have done.

Why does your company offer a school leaver programme? Why do you offer these positions to school leavers rather than apprentices or graduates? How do school leavers help build your company?

We took the decision over three years ago to run a School Leaver programme as we realised how hard it is for young adults leaving school to start their working career.  The expectation is all focused on going onto further education, but university tuition fees are extremely high. It is a tough decision deciding what to do and there aren’t too many options available.  We knew at Pret that we could provide a programme that gave young adults a start at work whilst also giving the support needed, plus a qualification.

What is the most common mistake you see on retail applications?

Probably the lack of understanding of the role they’d need to do to work in Retail. 

How competitive are your school leaver programmes? How many applications would you say you receive per position? How can candidates make themselves stand out from the crowd?

It’s very competitive.  About one in ten applications gain a place on the programme. To stand out candidates need to go the extra mile by fully completing the form; doing their research and selling themselves.

Do you have any examples of particularly memorable positive applications? What made them stand out?

Yes, I had a candidate once that didn’t have any work experience, but had a passion for food and retail.  They used their sense of humour to describe this and it was therefore a pleasure to read their application.


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