In the run-up to the future of retail and consumer conference R:evolution, TrueStart explores some developments in retail today.

Despite providing the platform for many of the world’s most spectacular business success stories – nine of the top 50 richest people in the world, according to Forbes, have built their fortunes in the industry – retail has a poor image in terms of its scope to offer a rewarding career.

As Arcadia chief executive Ian Grabiner said in a recently launched research collaboration between TrueStart, World Retail Congress and Green Park on the future of retail leadership: “In the past, retail was what you did if you didn’t go to university – it was easy to get into and wasn’t all about getting well paid.”

The research report supports this assertion. An analysis of the career backgrounds of the chief executives of the largest retailers in the UK indicates a lower level of participation in higher education than in the broader business community.

Almost three in 10 retail chief executives received no higher education and only one in 10 have a postgraduate degree.

This compares with a third of FTSE 100 chief executives who have an MBA or PhD and just 10% who did not attend university.

In part, this reflects the ‘hard apprenticeship’ associated with a retail career.

The same report finds a startling insularity within the higher echelons of the retail industry: two thirds of current retail chief executives have no experience working outside the industry and around 60% were elevated to their current roles as internal hires.

It is clear that, historically at least, there has been a lack of career mobility within retail, with a significant proportion of current leaders having worked their way up through store operations.

As a career calling card, it’s easy to see why the finance and, more recently, technology sectors have offered more enticing opportunities for university graduates and MBA students.

And yet times are changing. While much commentary about the retail sector focuses on the challenges, in some cases existential in nature, faced by incumbent operators, it is also the case that rapid changes in the consumer landscape are providing unprecedented opportunities to would-be retail entrepreneurs.

The enthusiasm with which consumers, particularly in the UK, have embraced online shopping means that retail businesses of genuine scale can now be built without necessary recourse to the large pool of capital required to establish a meaningful store network.

Meanwhile, within the management hierarchies of existing store-based retailers, it seems incontrovertible that leadership requirements over the coming decade will encompass a far broader range of skills and experience than has been the case historically.

Developing an acute understanding of consumers – a necessary condition of retail success in every era – will increasingly be derived via analysis of digitally sourced data, rather than the intuition evolving from years or decades of observation on the shop floor.

As an industry, retail has an exciting story to tell its prospective leaders: a fast-paced career encompassing innovation, technology and, still, the prospect of appearing on a list of billionaires.

  • Mike Tattersall is head of retail and strategic partnerships at TrueStart
  • On May 11, TrueStart will be hosting its annual future of retail and consumer conference R:evolution, where international influencers such as Mike Jones (initial backer of Dollar Shave Club), Allison Johnson (responsible for the launch of the iPhone and iPad as vice-president of marketing communications at Apple) and Ralph Simon (one of the founders of the modern mobile content and entertainment industry) will join industry masters such as Ben Lewis (chief executive, River Island), Marc Allera (chief executive, EE) and Kris Engskov (president, Starbucks EMEA). R:evolution is an invitation-only event. To learn more, please check or contact