Find out what skills, qualifications and experience you need to build a successful buying and merchandising career in the competitive and expanding retail industry

Have you ever wondered how the shelves at major retail stores are stocked with the latest must-have products? Much of it is down to the people working behind the scenes in buying and merchandising departments.

Discover why you should consider a career in these head office roles and find out what graduate opportunities are on offer.

Why choose buying and merchandising?

If you would like to influence trends and boost company profit then buying or merchandising could be perfect for you. The clothing retail industry is a large and growing sector in the UK. It generated almost £50billion in sales in 2014 and this figure is estimated to grow to almost £60billion by 2019 (Mintel 2015).

'Retail is an exciting, highly-competitive industry with many new and innovative changes,' says Julie O'Sullivan, course leader of the Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) Fashion Buying and Merchandising programme at the University of the Arts London (UAL).

While a retail merchandiser and retail buyer have different job descriptions, they will typically work together to agree on a product strategy for the business.

'Buyers and merchandisers collaborate to deliver product ranges that meet consumer needs and wants at the right price, in the right place and at the right time,' explains Julie. 'Buyers focus on product. They research fashion trends and are responsible for product selection. Merchandisers ensure commercial and financial viability of the product. They make sure that stock flows through the business and is available where it is most likely to sell.'

As a buyer or merchandiser you can expect high levels of responsibility and occasional travel, which could be international in nature, to attend trade fairs, watch fashion shows and visit suppliers. Starting salaries for junior buyers range from £19,000 to £25,000, while assistant merchandisers can earn £16,000 to £18,000, rising to £22,000 with experience. In senior positions salaries can reach to in excess of £85,000, depending on your employer, location and experience.

Job satisfaction is also a huge draw. 'The first time you see someone walking down the street dressed in something that you have contributed to bringing to the market is magical,' explains Maria Malone, principal lecturer for all Fashion Business courses at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).

What qualifications do I need?

It is possible to enter buying and merchandising without a degree but in such a competitive industry, where the number of job applications far outweigh the number of vacancies, many employers prefer graduates. Roles are open to graduates of all disciplines but business, fashion, finance and retail-related subjects are particularly relevant.

To expand on the knowledge and skills gained in your undergraduate study or if your previous degree was in an unrelated area, you may want to consider a Masters. For entry onto most courses you will need a good first degree (2:1 or above) or equivalent. For example, the PGCert Fashion: Buying and Merchandising course at UAL is an intensive 15-week programme, covering buying, marketing, merchandising, negotiation and supply chain management.

'We take students through the whole buying and merchandising cycle, from trend prediction to consumer market research, competitor analysis, garment design, range planning, sales forecasting, sourcing etc.,' says Julie.

'Recent graduates have secured roles at All Saints, Harrods, Lipsy, Reiss, Topshop and Urban Outfitters.'

Another option is the MA International Fashion Business: Buying and Merchandising programme at MMU. On the course you will gain an understanding of buying and merchandising roles while developing professional, managerial and personal skills.

Search for postgraduate courses in buying and merchandising.

What skills do employers look for?

To be a successful buyer or merchandiser you'll need to develop a number of industry-specific skills including strong communication and presentation skills and the ability to negotiate effectively.

'Trainee buyers need to demonstrate a natural affinity for product, trend and colour and have an insight into the way consumers are shopping,' explains Julie. ‘You need to be able to multi-task, keep a clear focus under pressure and evidence excellent time management skills.'

Other useful qualities include:

  • interpersonal skills - making sure that fashions arrive in store at the optimum time is a collaborative effort between many retail departments. A friendly, enthusiastic and outgoing attitude will ensure that you get the help you need to complete the job;
  • organisational skills and the ability to work well under pressure in order to cope with a hectic workload;
  • analytical skills, commercial focus and a talent for spotting trends;
  • numeracy skills - strong mathematical ability is essential. Make sure you're competent with Microsoft Excel and quick with mental arithmetic, ratios, percentages, margin calculations and currency exchanges.

What are my career options?

It is possible to start at the bottom and work your way up without a degree, although progression may be slower. Within buying you could start as a buyer's admin assistant or trainee assistant buyer before progressing to assistant buyer and then on to buyer. It's a similar story for merchandisers; you could start as a merchandising admin assistant and progress to assistant merchandiser before applying for merchandiser roles.

If you hold a degree you should consider applying for a place on a graduate scheme. There are plenty of opportunities to choose from with big companies such as Arcadia, John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and TJX Europe all offering schemes. Outside of fashion retail Dunelm, Halfords, Lidl, and WH Smiths provide graduate programmes in buying and merchandising.

Search for graduate jobs in retail.

What do graduate schemes involve?

Marks & Spencer have two buying schemes - one in clothing and home and the other in food, as well as a merchandising programme.

'Our graduates receive responsibility on real projects from day one. Following initial training and induction we offer plenty of learning opportunities - practical, technical and in-store,’ explains Hazel Bradford, future talent recruitment adviser at Marks & Spencer.

To gain a place on a programme you'll ideally hold a buying or fashion degree (buying) or a merchandising, analytical or business-related degree (merchandising) although other courses may be considered if you have relevant experience. You'll earn a salary of £23,500 and career progression can be rapid. 'After 12 months you could be offered an assistant buyer or merchandiser role. From there you'll gradually take on more responsibility until you become a fully-fledged buyer or merchandiser in charge of specific departments,' adds Hazel.

Arcadia recruits graduates to buying and merchandising schemes all year round. You'll have the chance to move between brands including Burton Menswear, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Topman and Topshop. As a buyers admin assistant you'll provide essential support to the buying team by following up deliveries, chasing samples and attending fit sessions. On the merchandising programme you'll use your forecasting and analytical skills to support the department and allocate new lines to stores and monitor their performance.

How do I apply?

The majority of graduate scheme applications are made online. This usually involves completing an application form and submitting this along with any supporting evidence/documentation. Due to the numerical nature of buying and merchandising it's likely that you'll also be asked to complete a maths test.

To stand out to employers make sure that you tailor your application to the job you are applying for. The retail sector does not look favourably on generic CVs.

If successful you may take part in a telephone or video interview, which could then lead to an assessment centre. From here it's likely that you'll have a face-to-face interview before learning the outcome of your application.

To set yourself above the competition try to gain plenty of relevant work experience. 'Shop floor experience is highly respected in our industry,' says Julie. 'There is no real substitute for working with customers, dealing with deliveries and stock take and working as part of a retail team.' Enquire instore at local retail outlets for shop floor opportunities and apply online for head office experience and industrial placements at large retail organisations. For more information on retail work experience see getting a graduate job in retail.

Enhancing your product knowledge by looking through your wardrobe at garment labels and reading industry press such as Drapers could also give you the edge. Knowledge of specific organisations and industry happenings will stand you in good stead when interviewing for jobs.

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