Tesco can expect to be flooded by applications from nervous graduates and undergraduates this month as entry for its 2010 scheme opens. As graduate vacancies are slashed across all sectors bar the utilities, Tesco has again spotted an opportunity to push itself forward and target the high fliers for whom previously a career in retail would be akin to cleaning a toilet. In July, it reported a 61% increase in graduate applications. Its UK operations personnel director Hayley Tatum said the company was "encouraging today's graduates to consider all options when leaving university".

The UK's number one retailer is not the only one to make hay while others suffer. Aldi this year increased its grad intake by 50%, with a starting salary of £40,000 rising to £60,000 the top-earning graduate scheme. Dan Ronald, regional managing director responsible for graduate recruitment at Aldi, admitted that "nobody grows up wanting to be a discount retail executive", but stressed that the role offered a great opportunity for progression. Meanwhile, over at Sainsbury's and Asda they have been able to fill graduate vacancies earlier than usual. And the Co-operative Group reported a 263% rise in graduate applications last year.

The current malaise in the job market presents retailers with a great opportunity to attract disillusioned top graduates. According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, one in four vacancies has disappeared this year approaching levels not seen since 1991. Starting salaries have also dropped and employers remain cautious about 2010, with more than half expecting little change and 11% thinking worse is still to come.

The reason it is important to keep graduate schemes going is that you need a pipeline of talented people. Food retailers have been among those leading the way in targeting unemployed and disadvantaged groups, as well as developing training schemes for non-graduates to progress up the career ladder. But there are roles that are predominantly the realm of graduates finance and legal spring to mind. If cost concerns lead to the dismantling of these graduate schemes, there will be a big hole in the future. And those who continued to invest, albeit at a lower level, will have a competitive edge.

Exclusive research for HR by recruitment consultancy FreshMinds finds that while investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are still in the top three of firms in which graduates want to work, bad headlines and poor performance has made the financial sector less popular. Instead, in at number nine and ten in FreshMinds' top 10 are Unilever and Innocent. How long before we see a food retailer up there?

Siân Harrington is editor of Human Resources magazine.