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Drapers Roundtable: Merchandising

Drapers Merchandising Roundtable

The influence of merchandisers is growing in the multichannel world, but sourcing and retaining that talent can prove a challenge.

Drapers Merchandising Roundtable

Drapers Merchandising Roundtable

Drapers Merchandising Roundtable

Commerciality, creativity and flexibility are the key attributes of a merchandiser in the multichannel fashion retail industry. The role is in a state of flux, taking on ever more responsibility for increasing profitability across every channel of the business.

The fusion of the role with buying, the complexities of international trading and the challenges of finding and retaining the best talent were some of the topics up for discussion at Drapers’ latest roundtable, held at London’s The Groucho Club (October 21). Held in association with merchandising recruitment specialist AquaRetail, Drapers invited directors from the likes of John Lewis, The Outnet and Dune to debate the future of merchandising in the multichannel world. Here we pull together some of the key talking points.

Is there a buying and merchandising fusion?

Noting a shift during the recession towards some heads of merchandising also becoming heads of buying for a short period, managing director of AquaRetail Mary Anderson-Ford asked the roundtable whether this was part of an industry-wide fusion of the roles.

Despite working in that dual role, Gant head of buying and merchandising Ruth Hamilton-Cox argued that each position has its own special skills: “There is a skill buyers have that merchandisers don’t. As a merchandiser, you might be able to tell whether a style is right or wrong, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to think up what they thought and how they put it together.”

While the role of buyer and merchandiser remains very separate at Dune, merchandising director Nilesh Karia noted a dramatic change over the past five years as everyone across fashion retail becomes more cross-functional. “Buyers are becoming more analytical,” he said. ”Likewise, merchandisers need to be more creative.”

The Outnet’s head of merchandising, Abigail Benjamin, has seen the same shift towards making buying more commercial. “Gone are the days when you would hand your buyer a number saying ’Just spend this’ and they would blithely follow. Most of my buyers at The Outnet have come through the commercial stream.”

This opinion was shared by John Lewis director of merchandising operations Jon Williams, who is seeing merchandisers taking a wider view across the business. “As well as having the core commercial and analytical skills, we increasingly need great communicators who can work with multiple stakeholders across the business. We’re getting drawn into projects across John Lewis, meaning the influence of merchandising is moving out across the business.”

Mary Anderson-Ford

Mary Anderson-Ford of AquaRetail

Mary Anderson-Ford of AquaRetail

For Thomas Pink chief operating officer Erica Vilkauls, merchandisers are actually working just as closely with design and marketing teams as buyers: “Our merchandisers work really closely with marketing and, from a CRM [customer relationship management] point of view, we put the customer needs at the start of the design process, which is led by merchandising.”

This experience was echoed by James Clark, senior lecturer on buying and merchandising at London College of Fashion and author of Fashion Merchandising. He sees the growing importance of merchandising in the multichannel world. “We’re trying to educate within a category management approach, because everything we’re saying is about cross-functionality. We’re trying to get people to think about buying and merchandising almost as a single role. The role of merchandiser has a much broader remit and the creative side is much greater than it was in the past.”

Should the role be redefined?

The definition of merchandiser in 2015 was questioned by Clark, who is embarking on research focused on the new consumer: “I don’t particularly like the name merchandiser. I think the time is right for a revolution in changing the terminology. We’re using titles like product or category manager more in the way we teach, because we think that’s where it’s going.

“It could be that the buying side is in decline, with the emphasis on brand USP raising the profile of design and, alongside that, merchandising.”

This is already happening at Thomas Pink, said Vilkauls: “The merchandising team has grown because it has to, and perhaps we have the smallest buying team in the world. We have merchandisers working very closely with marketing and design, with a very small but influential buying side.”

However, White Stuff head of merchandising Ruby Aslam is keen to keep the term: “The job name is associated with the fact that the UK has managed to raise merchandising to such a level of sophistication, which I’m really proud of.”

Abigail Benjamin of The Outnet

Abigail Benjamin of The Outnet

Abigail Benjamin of The Outnet

The changing face of merchandisers

For decades, the expectation was that merchandisers needed a maths or business academic background, but Anderson-Ford is seeing a whole new generation coming from a variety of educational disciplines including history, geography and sociology. With the requirements of multichannel merchandising being more sociological and psychoanalytical in nature than ever before, perhaps we need more than just a human abacus from our entry-level roles?

This experience was echoed by Williams when he met the latest intake of 50 people taking part in the John Lewis graduate scheme. “When I asked what everyone’s background was, we had linguistics, maths, biology, human resources, geography, etc. There was no common theme apart from that they were all switched on. The new recruits are very flexible and agile in their thinking. They’re more used to change and new challenges.”

Flexible thinking is one of the skills being taught by Clark and the team at the London College of Fashion: “The challenge is to get the perception away from the fact you need to be good at maths or whizzy on Excel. Those are the tools, but the value comes in interpretation. You can’t educate an innate commercial strength.”

The job-hopping generation?

Merchandisers can often be accused of having a tick-box mentality when it comes to promotion. This issue was noted by Benjamin, who worried that new recruits can compromise the quality of their work if they’re only focused on the next career move: “They’re so millennial. They come back to us in six months and say: ‘I’m bored – what’s next?’ They want more and more, so to keep them satisfied you have to push the business further.”

This experience was shared by Williams at John Lewis: “Understandably, there can be a tick-box mentality, but we have a responsibility to ask for a sustained understanding and delivery in order to progress to the next level. We have a strong churn in merchandising, but it’s not a negative churn. We’ve got a lot of newness in our team; that’s because we’ve promoted so many people or their influence has moved to benefit other parts of the business.”

Hamilton-Cox is a firm believer that to progress you need experience: “Things crop up all the time and they need to take those mistakes and learn from them. It takes years and that’s where you have to say: ’Calm down a bit’.”

Aslam noted a shortage of assistant merchandisers in some businesses where they have over-promoted people in order to retain them: “The characteristics we look for are energy and resilience, which comes with experience. You become better at coping with all the setbacks.”

Ruby Aslam of White Stuff

Ruby Aslam of White Stuff

Ruby Aslam of White Stuff

Multichannel – a focus on ecommerce and international

The popular misconception that international, branch or web merchandising are tangents springing from the core merchandising tree was noted by Mary Anderson-Ford: “Sometimes these non-core functions can be seen as the poor cousins, whereas everything we’re saying today is that ecommerce, branch and international merchandising – as the multichannel functions – are the future for our retailers.

At John Lewis, some merchandisers have moved to online to support the business’s omni channel strategy: “They offer strong commercial, analytical and trading skills to upweight and further drive our fastest growing channel,” said Williams. 

“We’re thinking about merging ecommerce into merchandising and that does raise some concerns about whether we have the skillset,” reported Vilkauls. “Most ecommerce specialists don’t have any skills in allocation or replenishment. If they’ve just been on the web, they can find it hard.”

The massive growth in online at Dune has created the need for a dedicated team of ecommerce merchandisers, working alongside a wider ecommerce team. “I’ve also just taken over international and, to understand foreign markets from South Africa to the Middle East, it’s taken me eight trips and two years to get my head round it,” said Karia.

He concludes: “Pricing, trends, the buying process and seasonality are all different. It’s a big challenge. You have to spend an extensive amount of their time out in those markets. I can’t get my core merchandiser to go into international; I have to recruit them.”

Key quotes

Erica Vilkauls

Erica Vilkauls of Thomas Pink

Erica Vilkauls of Thomas Pink

Erica Vilkauls, chief operating officer, Thomas Pink

“The role of merchandiser is much more interesting now. Merchandisers are dealing with marketing and design much more than ever before. The whole role is wider and more interesting.”

Nilesh Karia

Nilesh Karia of Dune

Nilesh Karia of Dune

Nilesh Karia, merchandising director, Dune

“In terms of international, we’re seeing a new generation of merchandisers going in and doing that role.”

Jon Williams

Jon Williams of John Lewis

Jon Williams of John Lewis

Jon Williams, director of merchandising operations, John Lewis

“We’re getting drawn into projects across John Lewis, meaning the influence of merchandising is moving out across the business.”

James Clark

James Clark of London College of Fashion

James Clark of London College of Fashion

James Clark, senior lecturer on buying and merchandising, London College of Fashion

“I think the time is right for a revolution in changing the terminology.”


Dune: Nilesh Karia, merchandising director 

Gant: Ruth Hamilton-Cox, head of buying and merchandising

London College of Fashion: James Clark, senior lecturer, buying & merchandising

John Lewis: Jon Williams, director, merchandising operations

The Outnet: Abigail Benjamin, head of merchandising

Thomas Pink: Erica Vilkauls, chief operating operator

White Stuff: Ruby Aslam, head of merchandising  

Sponsor AquaRetail: Mary Anderson-Ford, managing director; Lucy Killian, principal consultant


Drapers: James Knowles, online content editor; Charlotte Rogers, features & special reports writer

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