Ringing Up A Career In Retail

Avid consumerism has made this industry a new option for aggressive job seekers. Here's how you can register a good career move.

by Saks after five years in the wholesale arena and two years in retail sales at a New York leather company–sets aside choice items before they even hit the sales floor. He coordinates outfits with shoes and accessories, then schedules a fitting time. He may have their packages sent to their home or business via messenger. If need be, he’ll send them by express mail to a business meeting in London or a summer home in the South of France. “It’s customer service of the highest order,” says Grier, who remembers his customers’ birthdays with flowers or perfume–at Saks’ expense. “The better you can serve them, the more money you make.”

And more money can be had by many. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs in the retail trade is projected to rise 13% from 1994 to the year 2005. This increase will be fueled by a growing population that will have more money to spend. Much of this growth is projected to take place in the food and apparel/accessories industries.

To address the projected personnel demands, companies are shoring up their staffs. For example, Federated Department Stores, operator of Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Rich’s, will hire nearly 500 recruits for its executive training classes this year. But with few visible African American role models in high-paying retail positions, many never see the buying, merchandising and operations opportunities beyond the more common jobs of clerk and cashier.

Still, they do exist. The nation’s largest retailers boast many African Americans at the store manager level. Depending on the chain, size of the store and the market, store managers make $60,000-$120,000 a year. Buyers at major chains are responsible for several hundred million dollars worth of sales. Trainees for such positions start at around $30,000, but can double their salaries within five years. There are also great prospects for merchandisers who determine which items are displayed on a showroom floor, and product developers who develop store- brand designs and goods. African Americans are less represented in these two careers, which can easily garner six-digit salaries at most large retailers.

There are almost as many paths up the retail career ladder as there are retailers. Some stores such as Nordstrom, renowned for its strong “promote-from-within” philosophy, enlist virtually every hire for a tour of duty on the selling floor. Others, such as Federated and Target Stores, a general merchandise discount chain, have stringent professional training programs take take college graduates through rigorous cross-disciplinary training where they learn everything from advertising to distribution to sales. Human resources executives in the industry say that while some hires come from undergraduate business or M.B.A. programs, most come from liberal arts backgrounds.

Take Darrell Tucker, who graduated from Northwestern University in 1977 with a degree in philosophy and sociology. After school, Tucker entered discount retailer Montgomery Ward as an assistant buyer trainee and was quickly promoted to associate buyer before he moved to Target in 1981. After starting as an assistant buyer-distributor, he rose to

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