Have you ever wondered how the rails and shelves at major retail stores are stocked with the latest products? Much of it is down to those working in buying and merchandising departments

While head office retail jobs are generally easy to find they are incredibly competitive. Fashion buying and merchandising are popular choices for graduates looking to break into the retail industry but to be successful you'll really 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 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 £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. 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. However, some institution may accept those with a 2:2.

For example, Regent’s University London accepts 2:2 graduates onto their one-year Fashion Buying and Merchandising MA.

Throughout a year of study you will learn to understand and analyse future fashion trends, the global retail industry, digital innovation and technology in fashion, distribution, sustainability in fashion and terminology of textile manufacture. You’ll pick up skills such as budgeting, creating sample outfits, designing product offers, predicting trends and range building. In 2019 tuition fees cost £18,500. 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, 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. UK and European Union (EU) students will pay £3,630 in tuition fees in the 2019/20 academic year, while international students need to pay £6,645.

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, 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, home wear, electricals etc, 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 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 Regent’s University London now work with companies such as All Saints, Harrods, Browns, Selfridges, H&M and Macy’s. After gaining the PGCert at UAL graduates of the 2017/18 cohort now work for Gucci, ASOS, Ralph Lauren, Karen Millen and Net A Porter.

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.

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

At Lidl graduates on the Buying Graduate Management Programme undergo two years of intense development. In year one you'll receive regional training in stores, warehouses and administration teams to give you an overview of the business. You'll then move to head office to gain an understanding of buying; you'll rotate around departments to gain hands-on buying experience. In the second and final year you'll have full buying responsibility for your own product ranges.

Graduates on the Merchandising scheme at Arcadia start out as a merchandiser's admin assistant, helping to make sure that products are in the right place at the right time, either in store on online. You'll allocate new stock to stores and complete admin duties. You'll also analyse and present customer buying and sales patterns, assess sales figures and consult with buyers over product samples to decide where to launch the latest collection.

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

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