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Pathway to success

In a role that combines fashion savvy with a head for figures, how can merchandisers work their way up the career ladder?

Merchandisers follow a very structured career path, starting as an allocator, moving up to senior allocator, assistant merchandiser, merchandiser, senior merchandiser and finally to merchandising manager or head of merchandising. However, the fast pace of the fashion industry means employers are looking for something more than a methodical mind.

"The role is not just about number crunching any more," says Laura Wilson, manager of buying and merchandising at Freedom Recruitment. "Employers also want someone who has an affinity with the product. Merchandisers now have a lot more influence on the buying process, so they often have to be almost as fashion conscious as the buyers."

Job progression from allocator to merchandiser is relatively fast paced, with people spending up to two years in each position, according to Wilson. But once an employee has reached the level of merchandiser or senior merchandiser, with an average salary of £32,000 to £45,000, the movement becomes a lot slower. "This level of the market is very candidate driven, with many more applicants than vacancies for senior roles," she says.

Elizabeth Dean, manager of buying and merchandising at Fashion & Retail Personnel, says that at the more senior level it is often a good idea to look for internal promotion opportunities. "Many of the larger companies have introduced training programmes and different levels within their merchandising roles because they want you to stay with them. You will have had the chance to build up your team and department and therefore you know more than any external candidate about how it works.

"The downside is that you run the risk of getting typecast into one company - and employers want to see that you have worked at a number of businesses."

Wilson says that moving to a merchandising role at another retailer can often mean a sideways step, rather than a promotion. So in order to join a new company and take the next step up the ladder, she gives the following advice. "Take every opportunity to show how much you have progressed, how you've been exposed to various different businesses and how you have learnt and applied different skillsets throughout your career," she says.

Case Study: merchandising for a niche operator

Vicky Noyce, 27, is merchandiser for footwear, accessories and outlet stores at Hobbs

What did you find most useful about your training?

I started as a trainee assistant merchandiser at Debenhams, where my training was mostly systems-based and involved a lot of work on topics such as range planning and presentation skills. But you mostly learn through experience on the job. You have to be very pragmatic because although a lot of the job is about planning, it is also about trading, which you can never fully predict.

What skills are you learning at this level in your career?

Negotiation, people skills and how to work with all the different sectors of the business. I've learned to appreciate the objectives in other parts of the business and co-ordinate them with my own. I hope my role will progress to senior merchandiser, then I'd like to become head of merchandising in a fashion role.

How closely do you work with the buying team?

You need to have a very trusting relationship with the buyers, because you both must have the same goals. It's all about finding the balance between creativity and figures. We rely on the buyer to create the right product, while the buyers are extremely reliant on the figures we provide.

What are the main challenges of the job?

You have to do everything yesterday. You have to get the right product in the right shops at the right time, and constantly think of new ways to build sales. You must also keep up with what's going on in the whole industry. It's a good challenge because it means you are learning new skills every day.

What advice would you give to graduates who want to get into merchandising?

Go to a large employer for good systems training and a quick and structured career progression, so you know when you meet your objectives and when you are due to move up to the next level. I would also recommend moving around employers, working for several different companies rather than staying with one employer. This has enabled me to broaden my perspectives because I have been exposed to many different product areas.

Case Study: merchandising for a value retailer

Catrin Jones, 35, is senior merchandiser for footwear and accessories at Peacocks

How has your career developed at this level?

One of the great things about merchandising is that you have the opportunity to apply similar skills to a variety of product categories, which means you can constantly develop your knowledge. I started at Hobbs as an allocator, then moved to Debenhams where I became an assistant merchandiser in womenswear. I moved to Peacocks 10 years ago, and have covered womenswear, menswear and kidswear and now footwear and accessories. My early roles were systems-based, but now I'm developing more managerial skills. I'm in charge of co-ordinating all the data for the merchandising controller, which is hopefully the next step up for me.

How useful was your training?

The training doesn't stop. Peacocks has competency development programmes and different levels for each merchandising role, so there is always a very definite career path. This is one of the job's strengths - it gives you a reason to push yourself. You learn a lot on the job and there is loads of in-house training, which means I am constantly improving my technical skills and my use of advanced systems to forecast sales and the right stock levels.

What is your relationship like with the buying team?

It's like a marriage. You need to communicate all the time and know what the other team is thinking. I recently went to the Far East with the buying team and it was great to be able to go to supplier meetings and see the trend from its very source. It's crucial that merchandisers have the opportunity to go on these trips, even if it's only once a year, because nowadays you must have knowledge of product as well as figures.

What advice would you give to graduates who want to get into merchandising?

Compared to buying, where the only way in is usually through a fashion or textiles degree, there is much more leeway with merchandising. For example, I did a degree in geography. If you have a mathematical mind and are creative, it's a great role - it's almost like being a creative accountant.

Case Study: merchandising for a department store

Susan Spence, 43, is merchandiser for jewellery and watches at John Lewis

How has your career developed and what is your next step?

I started at Principles, working as an allocator for menswear, then moved up the ladder as an assistant merchandiser and then merchandiser at Jaeger, Burton and Muji. I was in charge of areas including menswear and womenswear. I joined John Lewis as a merchandiser in February 2005 and I hope the next step for me will be merchandising manager for womenswear or accessories.

How useful was your training?

Most of the training happens on the job, by learning from your peers. John Lewis runs a really good merchandise development programme, as well as in-house training, and we also have informal training every fortnight, when merchandisers from other areas of the business come to talk. Externally, I did a buying and merchandising course at the London College of Fashion, which was exclusively for people who were already in the industry, and I also recently completed an MBA in retailing and wholesaling.

What advice would you give to graduates who want to get into merchandising?

Check whether your preferred employer offers a training scheme, then make sure you look closely at the areas that it covers - financial strategies and forecasting sales stock and intake, for example. Also, see if an employer has set benchmarks so you know exactly how your career will progress in the future. Finally, you should ask how you will learn to do the job. Will it be all on the job, or will you have the opportunity to learn and train externally?

What are the key challenges for you as a merchandiser?

John Lewis plans to open 14 stores in the next seven years, so at the moment we're getting to grips with the new stock and sales systems that will enable us to manage this more effectively. Also, because the market is now far more competitive, you have to make decisions quicker. You have to accurately forecast, react and build flexibility into the supply chain and you also have to maximise availability and improve profit. It's a very exciting time.

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