Visual merchandisers develop, deliver and communicate visual concepts and strategies to promote retail brands, products and services in-store, in catalogues or online. They may also work with museums and galleries or create visual concepts for events.
The majority of visual merchandising personnel are employed in retail stores, the lowest level being assistant visual merchandiser up to visual merchandising/image controller, employing a staff of fifty plus in a large organisation. It is their job to create eye-catching displays and they are sometimes known as window dressers.
Visual merchandising designers who work in head office collaborate closely with other departments to create annual visual strategies and promotional events in order to entertain, excite and maintain the interest of the target markets.
Some visual merchandisers work on a freelance or consultancy basis and create visual concepts for clients or deliver training to retail teams.
The type of activities undertaken will depend on the employer and level of seniority. Visual merchandisers working at higher levels can be based within head office teams, with regional teams, or at larger or flagship stores.
In general, activities may include some or all of the following:
- liaising 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;
- conducting research on current and future trends in design and lifestyle, and associated target market features;
- meeting with business, sales managers and retail managers to discuss sales strategies;
- identifying and sourcing props, fabrics, hardware and lighting;
- maintaining a budget and negotiating with suppliers of visual materials;
- working with architectural features of stores to maximise the available space;
- using artistic skills or computer-aided design (CAD) packages, such as AutoCAD, Mockshop or Adobe Creative Suite, to create visuals and plans;
- creating visual merchandising packs to communicate visual guidelines including layout principles, visual dressings and signage - usually applies to those based in a head office;
- visiting branches to coach in-store visual merchandising or sales teams to interpret the guidelines and training them in the execution of the visual concept;
- assembling or dismantling visual displays in windows or in-store;
- carrying out 'comp (comparison) shops' to maintain awareness of other retailers' visual merchandising concepts;
- leading and motivating teams to complete displays to tight deadlines;
- seeking feedback from colleagues and customers on the visual impact of displays and implementing changes.
Potential candidates should ensure they understand the difference between visual merchandising, retail merchandising and shop-floor merchandising. The latter two are concerned with volumes and allocation of stock and its location and functional arrangement on the shop floor, rather than the visual and creative impact it makes. There are interfaces between the roles and teams may work closely together to achieve maximum sales and profitability.
- Assistant visual merchandiser salaries will typically start at around £12,000 to £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 on 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. These 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.
- In terms of gender balance, around 80% of visual merchandising roles are occupied by females, but this can differ depending on the product or brand.
- Many large retailers have head office-based roles in major cities in the UK, with field teams visiting stores in geographical regions, or store-based visual merchandising teams.
- Some employers may require the role to be multifunctional, with responsibility for store layout design or buying, and sometimes on a lower level, selling.
- The job can be very physical with lots of lifting and carrying, climbing of ladders and use of power tools. Subsequently, good levels of stamina and manual dexterity are useful.
- If based within a head office or field team it may be a requirement to visit stores in the field, which means time spent away from home.
- Some larger retailers with stores abroad may provide opportunities for international travel to ensure the consistency of the brand across European or worldwide branches.
- A driving licence may be required.
It is not essential to be a graduate to enter this profession, but some higher education institutions offer awards specific to the occupation. Some of these are available as a two-year foundation degree, with a top up year for a full Bachelors degree:
- fashion buying and merchandising at London College of Fashion;
- visual merchandising and promotional design at Hugh Baird College in Liverpool;
- visual merchandising at Hertford Regional College.
Other useful degree subjects include:
- fashion design;
- fine art;
- interior design;
- surface pattern design;
- 3D 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. Again, try to gain shop-floor experience alongside qualifications.
Some employers are now offering apprenticeships in visual merchandising.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- a talent for design, colour and style;
- creative flair and imagination;
- strong interest in current and future design trends;
- visual/spatial awareness and manual dexterity;
- effective communication and negotiation skills;
- engaging and working well with a range of teams;
- able to work with constructive criticism.
Graduates with no visual merchandising experience may find it beneficial to begin in a retail sales assistant role and get involved in visual merchandising on the shop floor.
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. A good source of potential employers is The Retail Directory of the UK. Senior-level visual merchandisers can also be field-based, working in stores across a particular region or based within stores themselves.
Employers will appreciate candidates who have a strong portfolio of relevant work that displays their abilities and potential.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Drapers Jobs
- Retail Careers
- Retail Choice
- Retail Week
- Your Retail Job
- Retail company websites.
- University careers services.
- National newspapers.
- Professional association websites such as Association for Cultural Enterprises (ACE).
Fashion and retail recruitment agencies frequently handle visual merchandising vacancies, for example:
Many retailers have their own in-house training in brand styles and design, available to employees for continuing professional development (CPD).
Potential candidates may consider the following courses in preparation for entry into the profession or to pursue them once employed.
The London College of Fashion has a variety of short courses linked with visual merchandising, including an online course and a course on the analysis of current and future retail trends, as well as foundation and graduate degrees in the discipline.
The Fashion Retail Academy offers a Level 4 Diploma in visual merchandising, which includes a work placement.
Some further education (FE) providers offer extremely practical courses that focus on retail display and visual merchandising, e.g. at East Berkshire College, Hugh Baird College and Hertford Regional College.
Professional associations provide information about visual merchandising and offer training. The British Display Society (BDS) represents the visual merchandising and display profession and aims to promote high standards in the occupations. They offer varying levels of professional membership, from Member (MBDS) to Fellow (FBDS) and also deliver a distance learning certificate in display and visual merchandising. The BDS has a quarterly newsletter, News Talk, available for download.
The ACE promotes 'commercial best practice in the cultural, heritage and visitor attraction sector by providing training and networking opportunities.' They run study days on visual merchandising and are a good source of information.
There are also a number of independent visual merchandisers who run training on a consultancy basis.
For visual merchandisers who have started on the shop floor, it may be possible, with experience, to become 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 career development.
Some experienced visual merchandisers may choose to become self-employed. They may freelance for a client base that they have built up, or work in a training or consultancy capacity with other retailers. Experienced visual merchandisers may also find freelance project work within the events or cultural sectors.
Talented visual merchandisers may find they can transfer their skills to careers in styling, prop-making, interior design, exhibition design and work within the television and film industry.