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Drapers Next Generation: Wired into the future

Job candidates’ skills need to keep pace with the boom in multichannel and international retail.

The past decade has seen fashion retail change out of all proportion. The arrival and growth of new sales channels such as online and mobile, together with a focus on international retail, has not only meant that fashion businesses have had to radically adjust the way they operate, but also the skillset they require.

Traditional professions such as buying and merchandising have had to keep pace with these changes. Sally Heath, head of multichannel buying at high street retailer New Look, has seen these changes first-hand during her 13-year buying career. She cites the arrival of fast fashion and the shift towards multichannel as having the greatest impact on her profession. “Certainly big businesses like ours, which are traditionally bricks and mortar, are definitely thinking more multichannel. Ecommerce isn’t its own channel anymore, you have to think of it all as one big shop, and buying and merchandising teams have had to evolve,” she says.

Practically she says online buyers and merchandisers have to think about how many options there are per line, how they put a collection together, and how it is visually merchandised. “Asos has proved that to some extent there is a limit to how much you can have online without it being very busy. [At] what page number do people start turning off?”

Julie Donnelly, head of womenswear buying at fashion etailer, agrees the skills required for buying have changed.

“In traditional bricks-and-mortar retail, the majority of buyers still build ranges by collections and looks. Online the majority of customers search by product type and any range duplication [is] highlighted immediately. That means that each piece must stand out on its own merits.”

She adds: “After all, customers will be turned off immediately if all they are faced with is a sea of black trousers. It is no bad thing for the industry as a whole that that places greater pressure on buyers to select individually fantastic pieces.”

Heath says while some of the principles stay the same, “a bestseller will always be a bestseller no matter what channel it goes through”, it’s now about how that’s presented. Buyers must work more closely with their online teams, and have an understanding of their online audiences. Heath says New Look’s online customer is slightly younger, and that they have more plus-size customers who might lack the confidence to go shopping in stores.

“You have to segment your product opportunities and try to focus on who your customer is. The opportunity is different and you have to understand that. You have to spend time with your analytics team and understand what it is that your customer is looking for every week.”

The rise of multichannel has brought with it a plethora of new roles, such as online copywriters and editors, and social media roles. James Nuttall, marketing, ecommerce and content manager at directional menswear retailer Oki-ni, says retailers require skills that didn’t exist a few years ago, with an understanding of digital marketing, paid search, affiliates, analytics and social media all on that list.

Changing technology is affecting all areas of the business, says Nuttall. For example, a copywriter [marketing again] must now also understand social media and how to ensure the copy they are writing is working. “The skills used to be siloed, but now they’re really combined,” he says.

With a flat retail market at home in the UK, retailers are casting their gaze overseas to more lucrative markets, and as such skills in this area are in high demand.

Alex Pescott, chief executive of executive search company Fusion Associates, which counts Ralph Lauren, Timberland and Lacoste among its clients, says: “Ten years ago, globalisation wasn’t so prevalent. Today, even small brands have to ‘internationalise’ themselves in order to compete effectively in the market.”

He acknowledges that ecommerce has simplified the process, but says: “To do it professionally requires multilingual sites, including geo-specific copywriting, logistics and customer services.”

When it comes to skills that might help a candidate get ahead in fashion, Pescott advises learning a language - he cites German, Italian, French, and Mandarin as the most useful - and to become better travelled.

“Better knowledge acquired through travelling around Europe and emerging markets - backpacking around Thailand probably isn’t that valuable - is both enjoyable and valuable to future employers,” he says.

Pescott’s views are echoed by Maria Hollins, trading director at etailer Asos. “As the business has grown we’re required to think more about the global customer and seasonality,” she says.

“Our international expansion has seen in-territory offices opening in Sydney and New York, with more planned for next year. Within these local operations is a team that plays an integral role in growing these markets and ensuring our proposition is relevant in terms of pricing, merchandising, buying, delivery, digital marketing and localised editorial.”

Despite these changes, people skills are still essential for retail. However, this doesn’t just mean in store and face to face, but providing the highest level of service no matter where in the world someone is shopping with a retailer, or which channel they are doing it through.

When hiring for Oki-ni, Nuttall says it’s not necessarily about qualifications but about transferable skills and those that are often easy to teach. This could mean a familiarity with content management systems (CMS) - for Nuttall this means anything from Facebook, to managing an eBay shop, or being able to use Photoshop.

“It’s not often that I’m looking for a particular degree, it’s being knowledgeable and savvy and having an interest in how things work,” he says.

For anyone aspiring to be one of tomorrow’s fashion’s leaders, digital know-how and linguistic abilities should put you one step ahead of the competition.


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