Head office retail jobs are incredibly competitive. Discover how to build a successful career in fashion buying or merchandising

Have you ever wondered how the rails and 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.

Why choose buying and merchandising?

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

A retail buyer focuses on product. They research fashion trends and are responsible for selecting the products that will 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 £19,000 to £25,000 - potentially rising to £60,000 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. In both jobs senior roles demand salaries of £70,000+.

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 get to see people buying and walking down the street in products that you have helped bring to market.

What qualifications do I need?

It is possible to enter buying and merchandising jobs without a degree but in such a competitive industry, where the number of applications far 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.

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 degree. Postgraduate study is not essential but it may give you an edge.

For entry onto most courses you will need a good first degree (2:1 or above) or equivalent.

For example, you'll need a good honours degree in a related subject for entry on to the one year, full-time MA in International Fashion Business: Buying and Merchandising Management at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).

This industry-led programme gives you the opportunity to develop specialist knowledge of fashion buying and merchandising from a managerial perspective. You'll study core units in organisation, performance, planning, product, professional practice and purchasing. You'll be assessed based on the production of coursework, reports, business plans and project work.

Tuition fees cost £7,560 for UK and European Union (EU) students in 2017 and £13,050 for international, non-EU students. For help with course costs see postgraduate loans and postgraduate loans in Northern Ireland.

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, marketing, merchandising, negotiation and supply chain management. 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.

Search for postgraduate courses in buying and merchandising.

What skills do 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. Trainee 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 under pressure 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. This could be through a part-time job, an internship or a period of work shadowing. 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 is 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 course at MMU now work with companies such as Burberry, Boohoo, TJX Europe and JD sports. After gaining the PGCert at UAL graduates of the 2016/17 cohort now work for Liberty London, Debenhams, H&M, John Lewis and All Saints.

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

Can I do a 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 to gain experience and build contacts.

John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and TJX Europe all offer buying or merchandising programmes. Outside of fashion retail Dunelm, Halfords, Lidl, and WHSmiths provide graduate schemes in buying and merchandising.

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

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