Career progression pathways in the retail and FMCG industry

To help you get a sense of how your own career might look, we’ve brought together four of the most common career progressions in retail and FMCG.
Elise Tornos
Team GradAustralia

How do you progress from your entry-level job in the retail or FMCG industry to a higher position in which you’re well-paid, intellectually challenged, and excited about going to work each day? The good news is that doing so isn’t terribly difficult. The entrepreneurial spirit of many retailers, and the tendency of retail organisations to be structured hierarchically, means that savvy graduates can aim pursue careers at the top from a range of starting points. To help you get a sense of how your own career might look, we’ve brought together four of the most common career progressions below.


The traditional approach—climbing up the ladder

Whether you’ve held down a retail job while studying or been accepted to a graduate program at a retailer or FMCG, you’re well-positioned to progress in the traditional way by using hard work, loyalty, and commitment to rise through the ranks.

This can be a slow process, and it’s often highly competitive—you’ll have to fight for promotions and earn the trust of colleagues and superiors. Fortunately, the rewards can be great. Robert Ulrich, who was CEO of the Target corporation from 1994 to 2008 started his career as a cart attendant. Similarly, Jeffrey Rein started his career as a graduate pharmacist before being promoted to assistant manager, store manager, district manager, and so on, until he eventually became the CEO of Walgreens, the second-largest pharmacy store chain in the United States.


Leaps and bounds—company-hop your way to the top


To succeed in a senior position at a retail organisation or FMCG business, you’ll need a suite of skills—leadership abilities, decisiveness, and so on—that are often cultivated in other industries too. For this reason, many business leaders in the retail space establish their bona fides by switching from company to company before aiming for a position of influence in a specific organization.

For example, Meg Whitman—the ultra-successful CEO of eBay until 2008, and then CEO of Hewlett Packard—worked in brand management for Procter and Gamble (a consumer goods organisation), before spending several years as a consultant for Bain and Co. She then switched back to retail, first working for Disney and a floristry company before becoming the CEO of eBay.


So good they can’t replace you—the expertise approach

Sometimes what a company needs in its leadership is a specific form of expertise—and it can be extremely advantageous to possess it. For example, Jeff Bezos, despite not having a background in retail or publishing, established himself as a phenomenally successful online retailer (via Amazon) because he did have the technical know-how to create a functioning online marketplace. Similarly, Harold Lee Scott Jr. became the CEO of Wal-Mart—the world’s largest retailer—because he possessed an expert understanding of the supply chains and logistical arrangement upon which large retailers rely (his first job with Wal-Mart was assistant manager of transportation).


Striking out—retail entrepreneurship

Here’s the most direct way to secure a job at the top of a retail or FMCG organisation—start one yourself. This is the path that’s been taken by people like Anita Roddick, founder and first CEO of The Body Shop; Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay; Janine Allis, the founder of Boost Juice; and many more. It can be difficult to take the reigns of a new business, and you’ll need significant expertise when it comes to your product, your market, and your management of the new business. The good news, of course, is that, if you do choose this approach, you can skip all of the intermediary steps and become a CEO on the spot.