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How I got here: Laura Gardner, head of merchandising at Sweaty Betty

Sweaty Betty’s head of merchandising on her passion for spreadsheets and using statistics to spot a winning style

Laura Gardner

Laura Gardner

What does your typical week involve?

Monday is all about producing reports, analysing trade from the previous week and deciding on any actions we need to take to help us meet our targets for the next week. These actions could be placing new orders with our factories, sending more stock to shops if a style is overperforming, pulling a product launch forward or, if something isn’t selling well, trying to push the garment to customers by putting it in the window or onto a mannequin.

The rest of the week then depends on what point of the season we are in. Sometimes I will be signing off orders, deciding on markdowns, speaking to our factories in the Far East and Europe, working with our warehouse in Leeds, meeting with my team of five at our head office in Fulham or going on store visits nationwide. Throughout the week I manage replenishment of new stock to stores and work on plans for new stores, helping to create new stock packages and working out how to get product to the shop in time.

I also help put together the new season range. As a merchandiser, my role involves analysis of which styles and colours worked well in previous seasons. I liaise with designers and recommend how many options we need in each range. A lot of what I do involves huge spreadsheets, which I love. The spreadsheets hold all our information about the different products in a range and sales data. My job is very statistics-driven, but it’s about interpreting those numbers in a commercial way.

How do you feel your role is changing as the industry evolves?

Everything has to be done faster. It’s all about speed to market and newness. Consumers have high expectations and they don’t want to wait. The desire for newness is stronger now than ever. Whereas in the past you had four seasons and product could live for three months in store, now etailers like Asos.com drop new products every week and that behaviour has become the norm. We have to think about the quickest way to get product to market, so we might look at sourcing different factories for repeats or keeping our main fabric in stock for quicker turnaround.

Is having an aptitude for maths an essential or is being analytical more important?

I’d probably say being analytical is slightly more important. Maths was actually my least favourite subject at school, but there’s something so interesting about numbers related to real products, customers and stores. The skill is being able to read the numbers and use them to make commercial decisions. It’s important to think of appropriate actions having analysed the numbers and think what they actually mean in real life, so you can recognise if something looks odd or needs attention.

Microsoft Excel plays a massive part, but it’s important to be able to do the maths yourself. I never go anywhere without my calculator and absolutely refuse to use anyone’s but my own.

What have you got wrong and how did you learn from it?

While working at The White Company as an allocator, I once allocated an entire warehouse of pillows out to stores in one go. I was playing around with the system to test something but forgot it was live. I definitely learned to test on test systems after that.

If you could change one thing about your career path, what would it be?

I have no regrets about my career, although it’s important to have different experiences to find out what works for you. While I learnt lots as European womenswear merchandiser at Banana Republic, it made me realise I’m better suited to smaller companies than bigger businesses with a strict corporate culture. I love working at family-run businesses like The White Company and Sweaty Betty where decisions can be made quickly.

Who in the industry do you aspire to emulate?

Retail is full of amazing inspirational women, I always feel so lucky for that. Jane Shepherdson, in particular, is amazing. I think what she did as brand director at Topshop was amazing and she has achieved the same thing as chief executive at Whistles. She is so relevant and timeless. Jane manages to anticipate what the marketplace needs and how to make a brand truly desirable.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Don’t get so stressed about everything; just stay calm. I’m better at that now, but when I started my career I used to panic so much when things went wrong. Now I just calmly take stock of the situation and remember it’s not brain surgery.

What are the key skills you need to be acquiring to keep progressing up the career ladder?

I’d say people skills are very important. A lot of what I do is managing my team. Also, having a really good knowledge and understanding of all areas of the business, so you can work together easily with other departments and understand how the decisions you make affect them. Another key skill is the ability to be open and adaptable to change.

How do you see your career progressing? 

I’d love to be a director of merchandising or product at some point. It would mean managing a bigger team and taking a more strategic view. As director of product, for example, I would have a bigger remit and work across more areas, leading the team rather than being as involved in the detail.

If you could work in another area of fashion, what would it be?

I always knew I wanted to work in fashion retail, but never as something very creative like a designer or stylist. Merchandiser is the perfect role because it mixes commercial acumen and gut feel with numbers and analysis. A role I loved was Christmas merchandiser at The White Company. It was exciting dealing with seasonal product, because it was fast-paced with a short selling window. The key was keeping stock as low as possible without selling out by Christmas.

CV

April 2015 - Head of merchandising, Sweaty Betty

June 2013-2015 - Senior merchandiser, Sweaty Betty

January 2012-2013 - European womenswear merchandiser, Banana Republic

July 2009-2012 - Merchandiser, The White Company

July 2005-2009 - Allocator, The White Company

January 2003-2004 - Replenishment analyst, Levis Strauss & Co

2001-2005 - BA (Hons) Fashion Merchandise Management, University of Westminster

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