Visual merchandisers use their creativity and awareness of trends to develop, deliver and communicate visual concepts and strategies to promote retail brands
As a visual merchandiser, you'll promote retail brands, products and services in-store, in catalogues or online. You may also work with museums and galleries or create visual concepts for events. Keeping up with and predicting future trends will be an important part of your work.
If you work from a head office, you'll most likely collaborate with other departments to create annual visual strategies and promotional events in order to attract and entertain the target market. It's also possible to work in a freelance or consultancy basis, creating visual concepts for clients or delivering training to retail teams.
Types of merchandising
- visual merchandising is concerned with a creative and visual impact
- retail merchandising (or shop-floor merchandising) is different from visual merchandising in that the focus is the volume, allocation, location and functional arrangement of stock on the shop floor.
There are, however, interfaces between the roles and teams may work closely together to achieve maximum sales and profitability.
As a visual merchandiser, you'll need to:
- liaise with teams such as buying, design and marketing to create design themes and plans, often months in advance, including window and in-store displays, signage and pricing concepts
- conduct research on current and future trends in design and lifestyle, and associated target market features
- meet with business, sales managers and retail managers to discuss sales strategies
- identify and source props, fabrics, hardware and lighting
- maintain a budget and negotiate with suppliers of visual materials
- work with architectural features of stores to maximise the available space
- use artistic skills or computer-aided design (CAD) packages, such as AutoCAD, Mockshop or Adobe Creative Suite, to create visuals and plans
- create visual merchandising packs to communicate visual guidelines including layout principles, visual dressings and signage - usually applies to those based in a head office
- visit branches and train sales teams in-store visual merchandising techniques and concepts
- assemble or dismantle visual displays in windows or in-store
- carry out 'comp (comparison) shops' to maintain awareness of other retailers' visual merchandising concepts
- lead and motivate teams to complete displays to tight deadlines
- seek feedback from colleagues and customers on the visual impact of displays and of the changes implemented.
- Assistant visual merchandiser salaries will typically start between £12,000 and £18,000, depending on experience and in-store or field function.
- Experienced or management roles can attract starting salaries of £20,000 to £27,000 with senior levels starting at around £30,000. Those working at director or international levels can earn between £45,000 and £60,000 per annum.
Some field or regional roles may attract benefits such as a company car, fuel allowance and mobile phone.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are typically 35 to 40 hours across the whole week. Early morning starts or late night finishes are common, as work must generally take place before businesses open for trade. If conducting a complete store redesign, overtime or overnight work may be required.
Many roles are full time, but part-time hours may be available.
What to expect
- As well as in-store or field visual merchandising teams, most major retailers will have visual merchandising teams based at their head office working on visual concepts for retail shops and/or catalogues and websites. Head office visual merchandising designers may visit stores out in the field to convey their design ideas to in-store visual merchandising teams and to ensure the concepts fit with the physical environment of the store.
- Freelance or consultancy work is common, with freelance visual merchandisers working with a client base of smaller or independent retailers to create displays or train staff. There may also be opportunities within specialist visual merchandising installation and prop-making companies, to which large organisations often outsource projects.
- Depending on the employer, the role may be multifunctional, with responsibility for store layout, design, or buying, and sometimes on a lower level, selling.
- Good levels of stamina and manual dexterity are useful as the job can involve lots of lifting and carrying, climbing ladders and the use of power tools.
- There may be opportunities for overseas travel with international chains, to ensure consistency in the brand.
A degree is not essential for this role, but some higher education institutions offer specific courses, including:
- fashion buying and merchandising at the London College of Fashion
- fashion, visual merchandising and branding at the University of Arts London
- fashion styling and visual merchandising at Istituto Marangoni London
Other useful degree subjects include:
- fashion design
- fine art
- interior design
- surface pattern design
- 3D design.
Some further education colleges offer relevant courses, including Hugh Baird College which runs a course in visual merchandising and promotional design.
Some major retailers do have graduate schemes for visual merchandising, but these are not very common. Many higher-level visual merchandisers gain experience by working their way up from the shop floor.
Postgraduate qualifications are not essential, but there are a number of professional training courses available.
Entry with an HND or A-levels is possible with art, fashion or design-based courses being useful. Starting as an assistant on the shop floor is a common way to enter this career.
You will need to have:
- a talent for design, colour and style
- creative flair and imagination
- a strong interest in current and future design trends
- visual/spatial awareness and manual dexterity
- effective communication and negotiation skills
- the ability to work well with different teams
- the capacity to work with constructive criticism
- a driving licence - this may be required for driving to different stores.
Gaining work experience in the retail sector can be helpful and especially if it involves creating displays and arranging products.
If you have no visual merchandising experience you may find it easier to step into this role by working as a retail sales assistant role first and getting involved in visual merchandising on the shop floor.
The majority of visual merchandising personnel are employed in retail stores.
The retail industry employs around three million people, which equates to 11% of the total UK workforce. By sector, it is the UK's largest private employer.
The types of employers most likely to recruit visual merchandisers include:
- fashion retailers
- department stores
- multiple high-street chain stores
- larger independent high-street retailers
- mail order companies
- internet shopping providers.
Museums, galleries and theme parks tend to outsource their visual merchandising requirements but may employ some entry-level visual merchandising staff.
Higher-level visual merchandisers tend to work in head offices, many of which are based in London and the South East or in other large cities. Senior-level visual merchandisers can also be field-based, working in stores across a particular region or based within stores themselves.
Employers appreciate candidates who have a strong portfolio of relevant work that displays their abilities and potential.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Drapers Jobs
- Retail Choice
- Retail Week
- Professional association websites, such as Association for Cultural Enterprises (ACE)
You can also check retail company websites for job openings.
Fashion and retail recruitment agencies frequently handle visual merchandising vacancies, for example:
A wide variety of training is available, which is suitable both for preparing for entry to this career and for further developing your skills and knowledge.
The London College of Fashion provides a mixture of undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses, as well as short courses and online short courses.
The Fashion Retail Academy offers a number of different courses, from degrees and diplomas to short courses and apprenticeships.
Many retailers have their own in-house training in brand styles and design, available to employees for continuing professional development (CPD).
It’s also possible to source training through a consultant visual merchandiser. Details of these can be found online.
Professional associations, such as The British Display Society (BDS) offer professional membership and a range of training courses.
The Association for Cultural Enterprises (ACE) promotes 'commercial best practice in the cultural, heritage and visitor attraction sector by providing training and networking opportunities.' The organisation also runs study days and masterclasses in visual merchandising.
Visual merchandisers who have started on the shop floor and gained experience may be able to progress to the position of a team or an area team leader or manager.
Those seeking to work at higher levels may need to have drawing skills, with desirable computer-aided design (CAD) skills. The ability to communicate ideas and convey complex information in a way that can be easily understood is vital. Planning and organisation skills with the ability to lead projects from design through to completion within tight deadlines are also essential.
Promotion to head office creative and visual merchandising teams may be a possibility. Head office career structures will vary from employer to employer but could include senior, director or international roles if the company is multinational.
Seeking professional status through BDS membership levels could enhance your career development.
With enough experience, you could choose to become self-employed and either work in a freelance capacity or work in a training or consultancy capacity with other retailers. It may also be possible to find freelance project work within the events or cultural sectors.
Another possibility is to transfer your talents to other connected areas, such as styling, prop-making, interior design, exhibition design and work within the television and film industry.