Buyers and merchandisers work behind the scenes at retail companies to ensure that shelves are stocked with the latest trends. Discover how to break into these exciting areas

Head office retail jobs are incredibly competitive. Fashion buying and merchandising are popular choices with graduates looking for a career in the retail industry, but to be successful you'll need to prove your worth during the application process.

Why choose buying and merchandising?

There's so much more to the retail industry than working on the shop floor. Buying and merchandising jobs put you at the heart of a company and give you the power to directly influence trends and boost profit.

retail buyer focuses on product. They research fashion trends and are responsible for selecting the products that appear in store or online. Retail merchandisers ensure commercial and financial viability of the product. They ensure that stock flows through the business and is available where it is most likely to sell.

Although the jobs differ, buyers and merchandisers usually work together to deliver product ranges that meet consumer needs at the right price, in the right place and at the right time.

As a buyer or merchandiser you can expect high levels of responsibility and occasional travel, which could be international, to attend trade fairs, watch fashion shows and visit suppliers.

Starting salaries for junior buyers range from £18,000 to £25,000 - potentially rising to £45,000 with experience. Assistant merchandisers can earn £16,000 to £18,000, rising to £22,000 with experience. After several years in the profession you could earn £36,000.

On top of perks such as early responsibility, trend setting, retail discounts and opportunities to travel, job satisfaction is another huge draw. As a fashion buyer or merchandiser you will see people buying and walking down the street in products that you have helped bring to market.

What qualifications do I need?

It's possible to enter buying and merchandising jobs without a degree, but in a competitive industry, where the number of applications outweighs 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.

For example, for the BSc Fashion Buying and Merchandising course at the University of Manchester you'll need to achieve AAB at A-level for entry. The programme takes three years to complete, four with an industrial placement. Core course modules include 'Raw Materials for Fashion', 'Management and the Apparel Pipeline', 'Fashion Buying and Merchandising', 'Fashion Business and Analysis' and 'Buying Strategy'.

To expand on the knowledge and skills gained in your undergraduate study, or if your previous degree was in an unrelated area, you may consider a Masters degree. Postgraduate study is not essential but it may give you an edge.

For entry onto most courses you'll need a good first degree (2:1 or above) or equivalent. However, some institutions may accept those with a 2:2.

For example, the one-year Fashion Buying and Merchandising Management MA at Manchester Metropolitan University accepts students with a good honours degree. Throughout the year of study you'll gain a deep understanding of the role of a buyer and merchandiser and gain the ability to strategically plan and select a range of high quality garments. Typical units include 'Product', 'Organisation', 'Planning', 'Purchasing', 'Professional Practice' and 'Perform'. Tuition fees cost £8,500. For help with course costs see postgraduate loans.

Postgraduate certificates in buying and merchandising can also be studied, such as the PGCert Fashion: Buying and Merchandising course at University of the Arts London (UAL). The programme is an intensive 15-week course, covering buying and merchandising and marketing and supply chain. You'll learn about the buying and merchandising cycle, from trend prediction to consumer market research, competitor analysis, garment design, range planning, sales forecasting and sourcing. UK and European Union (EU) students will pay £3,740 in tuition fees, while international students will need to pay £7,640.

Search for postgraduate courses in buying and merchandising.

What skills do retail employers look for?

Trainee buyers will need to demonstrate a natural affinity for product, trend and colour and have an insight into the way consumers are shopping. Aspiring merchandisers need to possess the ability to understand what appeals to customers.

In both jobs you need to be able to multi-task, keep a clear focus and evidence excellent time management skills. Creative flair, a passion for retail and a strong sense of commercial awareness will also stand you in good stead.

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 - to cope with a hectic workload
  • analytical skills, commercial focus and a talent for spotting trends
  • numeracy skills - strong mathematical ability is essential, especially for retail merchandisers. Make sure you're competent with Microsoft Excel and quick with mental arithmetic, ratios, percentages, margin calculations and currency exchanges.

Many of these skills can be developed on a postgraduate course or through relevant work experience. To set your application apart make sure you have some previous experience of retail, in the form of an internship, period of work shadowing or volunteering. A part-time retail job will provide invaluable experience and will go a long way to impressing potential employers. If you have a particular area of interest such as fashion, homewear or electricals, try to secure a job in a relevant retail setting. This will enhance your product knowledge and develop your trend-spotting skills. As buyers and merchandisers generally work in an office environment, experience in a similar setting may also prove useful.

What are my career options?

It's possible to start at the bottom and work your way up without a degree, although progression may be slower. Within buying you will typically start as a buyer's admin assistant or trainee assistant buyer before progressing to assistant buyer and then on to a buyer job.

It's a similar story for merchandisers - you could start as a merchandising admin assistant and progress to assistant merchandiser before applying for merchandiser jobs.

With significant experience it's possible to climb the ladder to become a buying controller or merchandising director.

Graduates of the Manchester Metropolitan University course now work with companies such as Burberry, Boohoo, TJX Europe and JD Sports. After gaining the PGCert at UAL graduates now work for Gucci, ASOS, Ralph Lauren, All Saints, mytheresa.com, River Island and John Lewis.

Search for graduate jobs in retail and discover what you can do with a degree in fashion.

An increasing number of retail companies now offer apprenticeships. If university study isn’t for you but you’d still like a job in head office functions you should consider training via a retail apprenticeship.

Can I do a buying and merchandising graduate scheme?

If you hold a degree you can apply for a buying or merchandising graduate scheme.

There are plenty of retail graduate schemes on offer, and they are a great way of gaining experience and building contacts.

Arcadia, Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Next and TJX Europe all offer buying and/or merchandising graduate programmes.

On the two-year buying scheme at Morrisons you'll carry out a range of tasks from sourcing and selecting ranges to forecasting sales and negotiating deals with suppliers. You'll play a vital role in new product development and assist with product launches and promotion. You'll start the programme as an assistant buyer, before training to become a buyer of a specific product area. To gain a place on the scheme you'll need a minimum 2:1 degree.

At Marks & Spencer graduates on the merchandising programme start out as graduate trainee assistant merchandisers. You'll get involved in all aspects of merchandising, from researching market trends and advising buyers on products that will become best-sellers to analysing sales and planning new product ranges. After 12 months you'll be ready to take on an assistant merchandiser role. With increased responsibility you'll then move on to become a merchandiser in charge of your own area. The scheme pays a salary of £25,000 and you'll typically need a merchandising, analytical or business-related degree for entry.

To find out more about available programmes, what they involve and how to apply see retail graduate schemes.

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