Published: 02 Jun 2014 By James Knowles
Ask any aspiring fashion professional which career path they want to take and traditionally the answer would have been buying. This front-end, product-focused role is arguably more visible and many think is more glamorous than an analytical role such as merchandising for which there is less awareness and less uptake.
Recruiting good merchandising talent remains an uphill struggle, but some retailers and recruiters are reporting growth in interest in this career path.
Jo Penny, who has held positions at Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and House of Fraser and is now merchandising director for lifestyle retailer White Stuff, agrees: “That’s definitely the case. When I first started at M&S many years ago as an allocator, most people just didn’t know the role existed. Whereas for a long time people have known that retailers need buyers and it’s been seen as very glamorous.”
Penny says the greater awareness of merchandising is due to university lecturers, who she says increasingly are people who have worked in fashion. They are now communicating to students the breadth of roles open to them.
White Stuff doesn’t have a graduate scheme but works with the University of Westminster’s Fashion Merchandise Management BA course to take on one to two student placements a year for 12 months. “We’ve had really good success ratesand taken on the last couple that have spent time with us,” says Penny.
Suzy Denyer, head of merchandising for womenswear chain East, says despite more awareness of the career path, it remains a challenge to find good merchandisers: “We had two positions recently and we had quite a few people applying. But then we bring them in and get them to do quite a basic maths and Excel test and they just fail. We need to have a certain level, so it’s been quite hard to get candidates on that lower level.”
Edward Fella, general manager for recruitment agency Le Pont, agrees that the market is still evolving and says there are more jobs than candidates in the market: “This has been a long-standing challenge in the industry because of merchandising not being publicised enough. [However] you often see retailers and fashion houses doing more at universities to try and proactively educate the future potential talent.”
In regards to skill set, Denyer says it is a misconception that merchandisers are simply number crunchers, and looks for people with both an analytical mind and a passion for product. “I want them to have logical skills and I want them to be quite creative, and finding the two at the same time is quite difficult. The team I’ve got is brilliant, I’m not going to let them go, but I do find it hard. As soon as someone thinks of themselves as a bit creative they think ‘I want to be a buyer or a designer’ but if they’ve got a logical brain as well then they can quite happily be a merchandiser and still be heavily involved in product.”
Womenswear retailer Jacques Vert does not take on student merchandising placements or offer a trainee scheme, but head of recruitment Kate Dixon says this is on the brand’s recruitment strategy to launch. She adds that there has notoriously been a recruitment bottleneck at all levels of merchandising throughout her time in recruitment but agrees this is changing. “We still see fewer applications for MAA s [merchandising admin assistants] than we do with BAA s [buying admin assistants] and design assistants. However, the applications for MAA s has increased and is healthier than it has been in the past.”
Dixon says more senior merchandisers are harder to find and place, because of a shortfall of candidates, meaning that industry demand outstrips supply. “Companies will fight to retain their merchandising talent especially from junior merchandiser level up, therefore making it harder to engage and tempt them away from current positions. You have to find a unique and attractive USP to even start a dialogue with candidates at these levels.
“There is now more talent coming through at entry level and this subsequently means that as they go on their journey there will be more at the level that is particularly hard to recruit for.”
Premium retailer Reiss ties up with Westminster University’s Fashion Merchandise Management BA course to take one placement a year. But global head of HR Luke East says recruiting and then keeping hold of merchandisers can be tricky. “[Recruiting] merchandisers is the biggie for us too, and we’re in London so you would think that that would be easier, but we have that as an ongoing [issue]. We’ve now been looking for a womenswear individual for months,” he says.
While the influx of more graduates into merchandising roles filters through to those more senior positions, competition for the best talent remains rife, which has had a knock-on effect on salaries. “Through the recent downturn it was often merchandisers who were in hot demand. Retailers knew they held the key to controlling the profits – and their salaries have rocketed as a result. I spoke with a COO [chief operating officer] of aretailer last week who was quite aghast at the way these salaries have shifted so much in the past six or seven years, and it’s a fair observation,” says Mary Anderson-Ford, owner of recruitment agency AQUA retail.
Penny agrees salaries have headed upwards and says they are now on a par with those seen in buying. She adds that merchandisers that have benefited from training at one of the big corporations are most in demand. “Recruiters know that you have been properly trained and potentially have worked across many different product areas. I started at M&S, which has great training, as did Debenhams, which was then part of the Burton Group, and House of Fraser. It makes you really saleable to have that kind of experience.”
She joined White Stuff 18 months ago and has since set about putting the same structure and process in place: “I’ve ended up bringing in quite a few external people with that expertise. Yes I have to pay above the odds but I know I am going to get what I truly need – someone with fantastic experience and all the core merchandising skills to come into a business that doesn’t have that and put it in place and make it happen. And that’s why I think you have to pay above the odds for these good people.”
Adam Brown, founder of resort wear brand Orlebar Brown, agrees that brands and retailers a likeneed to offer competitive packages for the best merchandising talent. “Stock is at the heart of any business, so good merchandisers are worth their weight in gold. The challenge for us is that we are a multichannel business, we have stores, ecommerce and wholesale, so we need someone who can merchandise for all three. Those candidates are hard to source and we find that we have to pay well to get them.”
Jane Richardson, senior consultant for merchandising at recruitment consultancy Success Appointments, agrees and says merchandisers can expect higher salaries and quicker career progression than in other head office roles. “Good candidates who wish to progress are like gold dust. Especially once they get to assistant merchandiser or merchandiser level they can command very high salaries. Counter offering and over inflation is rife at the moment, so companies need to make sure they recruit quickly and effectively.”
All this means that the merchandising career path moves quickly. After a couple of years as an allocator or MAA , the next steps are assistant and junior positions, before becoming a fully-fledged merchandiser.
The good news for those that make it is that merchandisers often go on to the top jobs. Sally Bailey, former chief executive of White Stuff, Topshop managing director Mary Homer, Whistles chief executive Jane Shepherdson, Gwynn Milligan, managing director of young fashion retailer Bank and Karen Millen joint-managing director Steve Price are all examples of people who have taken the merchandising route to the top.
As the level of demand creates a clear route for progression, Devorah Albert, director for recruitment agency Henry Fox, says more people should consider this career path: “Merchandising is a less well-known career path, but it is perfect for anyone wanting a job with plenty of growth potential to move up a career ladder, with variety and the opportunity to earn a great salary.”