Working closely with buyers, retail merchandisers predict up-and-coming sales trends to ensure maximum profitability
Merchandisers ensure that products appear in the right store, or on a website, at the appropriate time and in the correct quantities. This involves working closely with the buying teams to accurately forecast trends, plan stock levels and monitor performance.
While the buyer selects the lines, the merchandiser decides how much money should be spent, how many lines should be bought, and in what quantities.
In smaller companies, the same person may be responsible for both buying and merchandising.
Merchandisers play a key role within retail, as profits can be affected by how successfully they undertake their work. Merchandisers set prices to maximise profits and manage the performance of ranges, planning promotions and markdowns as necessary.
They also oversee delivery and distribution of stock and deal with suppliers.
Duties vary depending on the company and the particular retail sector, but will typically include:
- planning product ranges and preparing sales and stock plans in conjunction with buyers
- liaising with buyers, analysts, stores, suppliers and distributors
- maintaining a comprehensive library of appropriate data
- working closely with visual-display staff and department heads to decide how goods should be displayed to maximise sales
- producing layout plans for stores, sometimes called 'statements'
- forecasting profits and sales, and optimising the sales volume and profitability of designated product areas
- planning budgets and presenting sales forecasts and figures for new ranges
- controlling stock levels based on forecasts for the season
- using specialist computer software, for example to handle sales statistics, produce sales projections and present spreadsheets and graphs
- analysing every aspect of bestsellers (for example, the bestselling price points, colours or styles) and ensuring that they reach their full potential
- maintaining awareness of competitors' performance
- monitoring slow sellers and taking action to reduce prices or set promotions as necessary
- gathering information on customers' reactions to products
- analysing the previous season's sales and reporting on the current season's lines
- making financial presentations to senior managers
- accompanying buyers on visits to manufacturers to appreciate production processes
- meeting with suppliers and managing the distribution of stock, by negotiating cost prices, ordering stock, agreeing timescales and delivery dates and completing the necessary paperwork
- identifying production and supply difficulties and dealing with any problems or delays as they arise
- managing, training and supervising junior staff
- Starting salaries for an assistant merchandiser range from £16,000 to £18,000, rising to £22,000 with experience.
- After several years' experience, a merchandiser can expect to earn between £28,000 and £36,000.
- Salaries for a senior merchandiser range from £45,000 to £65,000, plus a benefits package. At the top of the profession, a head or director of merchandising in a large company can earn in excess of £85,000, plus benefits.
Salaries vary depending on location, employer size, turnover and product type. Large, high-street multiples often offer the highest salaries. Other benefits, such as a company car and private health insurance, are common.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are normally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. However, longer working hours may be necessary to support the opening of a new store, during a special sales promotion, to launch a new product or range, or to deal with unforeseen production difficulties.
Weekend or evening work is occasionally necessary to visit stores or for competitive shopping.
It can be difficult to get part-time work because of the need to be available daily to deal with problems with suppliers. However, some companies may offer flexible working hours.
What to expect
- Work is mainly office based with a balance between independent work and regular team contact.
- There are no real opportunities for self-employment or freelance work unless you set up as a retail consultant.
- Merchandising can vary in different retail organisations and it can be a head-office or a branch-based function. Most retail merchandisers work from head offices, the majority of which are in London and the South East, or in other large cities.
- Dress code depends on the company, but is usually formal.
- The retail industry employs slightly more women than men.
- The job involves working in a fast-moving and competitive environment, with high levels of responsibility for potentially very large budgets, where even minor errors can result in vast reductions in profit. This aspect can either be motivating and challenging or a source of stress.
- Although most of the work is office based, some of your time will be spent each week visiting stores or suppliers and occasionally attending trade fairs or fashion shows. This may involve spending short periods of time away from home.
- There can occasionally be opportunities for overseas travel, particularly in fashion, for example to accompany buyers to Latin America, East Asia or South East Asia, depending on the product range. At senior levels, overseas travel may be required to find new suppliers, select and buy goods or deal with problems with manufacturers.
Although this profession is open to all graduates, a degree in the following subjects may increase your chances of finding work:
- accountancy and finance
- business or management
- IT or computer studies
- mathematics or statistics
- retail management.
Many companies prefer to recruit graduates from business-related or maths-based degrees due to their analytical abilities, but others will consider graduates from any discipline as long as they have the necessary skills.
An interest in the products that the company retails will be an advantage.
This occupation is also open to those with an HND, particularly in the following subjects:
- accountancy and finance
- business or management
- transport, distribution, logistics or operations management.
Entry without a degree or HND is possible for candidates with other relevant qualifications or experience. Some allocator or assistant merchandiser posts require good A-level results.
A postgraduate qualification is not needed, although there are relevant postgraduate courses available.
You will need:
- strong analytical and numerical skills to work out budgets and understand sales figures
- the ability to work under pressure in a dynamic environment and to quickly identify problems and recommend solutions
- sound decision-making skills and the ability to plan and prioritise
- excellent communication and negotiation skills
- the capability to work well as part of a team and to build and maintain effective working relationships with a range of people
- strong commercial acumen and the ability to understand what will appeal to customers
- computer literacy
- creative flair
A driving licence is also usually required.
Strong competition for vacancies means that pre-entry office-based work experience is often essential. In addition, work experience with one of the major high street retailers may help to demonstrate both an interest in retailing and an understanding of stock control levels, which can be advantageous at the application and interview stage.
There are relatively few graduate training schemes for merchandising, although some retail management training schemes include merchandising as one of the specialist areas. Most graduates will need to apply directly for junior or entry-level posts, usually as an allocator whose main responsibilities include data analysis, assisting the merchandiser to allocate stock to stores, and liaising with suppliers over stock delivery times.
Other junior-level positions include distributor or merchandise administrative assistant (MAA). It may be useful to make speculative applications directly to the merchandising departments of major retailers.
When you are looking for merchandising vacancies, it is important to fully understand that particular organisation's definition of the role, as the job description and work activities can vary greatly between companies.
Many larger retailers have in-store merchandise teams whose job it is to carry out the instructions of the head office merchandiser by organising and placing stock on the shop floor. Experience on one of these teams may provide knowledge of how merchandise plans need to be interpreted.
It may be possible to start in a similar role, such as visual merchandising, and progress to the retail merchandise position. A visual merchandiser creates window and in-store displays in shops and department stores, taking responsibility for 'the look' of the store, with the aim of promoting goods to maximise sales.
The retail industry employs around three million people. The industry is currently in a state of change, largely due to the rapid growth of online retail. Over the next five to ten years, online retail sales will continue to increase, while the number of traditional high street stores is expected to decline, according to the Centre for Retail Research.
The types of employers most likely to recruit retail merchandisers include:
- fashion retailers
- department stores
- multiple high-street chain stores
- fast food, sandwich and coffee chains
- larger independent high-street retailers
- wholesale suppliers
- mail order companies
- internet shopping providers.
There are opportunities to work abroad, particularly with retail firms which have international outlets.
Look for job vacancies at:
Fashion and retail recruitment agencies frequently handle merchandising vacancies, for example:
Training for retail merchandisers is largely on the job and competency-based and usually involves working towards specific set tasks and undertaking projects, either individually or as part of a larger team.
Most retail companies will have a training scheme. This will vary according to employer but may include courses on:
- consumer behaviour
- system training
- time management.
There are a number of courses that can be taken in merchandising, including short courses in fashion merchandising at the London College of Fashion and postgraduate taught courses and research opportunities at a variety of universities.
A number of further education colleges offer courses that focus on retail display and merchandising. Distance-learning foundation courses in buying and merchandising are also available.
To support those wishing to embark on a career in fashion retail there is the Fashion Retail Academy. The Academy aims to work in partnership with the retail industry to deliver professional and vocational training programmes, including the Level 4 Diploma in Fashion Merchandising.
The course has strong links with fashion retail head offices in London, which enables students to gain first-hand experience as part of their studies. They also offer shorter merchandising courses at introductory, intermediate and postgraduate level.
Other professional qualifications that may appeal to merchandisers are offered by:
The entry point of a retail merchandiser can vary between companies and will depend on relevant experience and qualifications. Usually, new entrants begin as allocators, distributors or MAAs.
There is a clear career development path in merchandising. Companies often have a competency-development programme in place, with a set of competencies that have to be achieved in order to qualify for the next level and gain promotion.
The next level up from working as an MAA is assistant merchandiser (although in some companies, there is an additional step in between these two roles as senior allocator/senior distributor). It is common to remain at assistant level for a couple of years before promotion to merchandiser and then to senior merchandiser.
For those interested in management, it is possible to work up to merchandise manager, then on to head of merchandising and then merchandising director. These roles will be head-office based.
Career development can be rapid but this is largely dependent on individual performance. It is possible to have responsibility for a large budget and a team of people within five years, and it is common to have reached senior merchandiser level within eight years.
It is usual for a merchandiser to specialise in a certain product area, such as homeware, food or fashion, but skills and experience are transferable between products. It is also possible to move sideways into a business analyst role. However, moving between career areas within a company (from merchandising to buying, for example) is not always easy.