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30 Under 30: Q&A with Matalan's Jonathan Mills

COMMENT Drapers catches up with Jonathan Mills, Matalan merchandiser for ladies’ outerwear, shorts, denim and casual trousers, to find out what he has been up to since being profiled as one of Drapers’ 30 Under 30 in January.
Written on 1/3/17

You were selected as one of Drapers’ 30 Under 30 in January of this year. Since then, how has your career been progressing?

At the time of being selected I was moving within Matalan from men’s formalwear on to our internal ladies brands team. The new buyer [Lizzie Beers] and I were tasked with reviving the fortunes of our internal brands – work that has come to fruition over the last three months. In the last couple of weeks, I have moved teams again, on to our ladies’ denim, outerwear, shorts and casual trousers area, which is another positive development for me. I’m getting experience on different product areas and, in ladies’ denim, one of the biggest departments in the company.

What have been some of your biggest achievements in the past 11 months?

My biggest achievement over the last 11 months would be overseeing the change in fortunes of the internal ladies brands’ [which include Soon]. Along with the new buyer and the rest of the team, we listened to customers, executed a new strategy and limited the number of stores the ranges were stocked in to ensure the range was right. The ranges re-launched in late August and have been a big success. Soon will now be stocked in all stores from spring 17 because of its performance.

I have also been involved with a new programme at Matalan for integrating new starters into the business. I am part of a team who run training sessions and offer support to those new to the business, and to merchandising, to make sure everyone has a positive experience in their first few weeks and months. I also helped one of my trainees gain promotion, and it’s really rewarding to be part of peoples’ development and seeing them grow.

Click here to read Drapers Next Generation 2016

What does your role now involve day to day?

Every day I will check the previous days’ sales for my areas and the product detail driving that. Then check the website and the bestsellers on ecommerce and see if they are any actions to take. There will always be emails from suppliers to deal with, but after that every day is different, depending on the focus at that time of year. Preparing for director meetings, strategic planning of the following season, store visits, building to space, size analysis and analysing any sales trends that have appeared over the previous weeks are some of the tasks I do on a regular basis.

Is there anything about a merchandising role that people might not expect? For example, is it more creative than someone looking at this career path might think?

At Matalan, the merchandising team gets involved with all aspects of their departments. I have learnt about fabrics and yarns, been involved with ideas for web content for my areas, been on roadshows visiting different stores, competitor shopping, a whole variety of things, as well as the expected number crunching.

I am also scheduled to go out to China and Hong Kong, visiting suppliers and factories to see if there are any areas where we can improve how we work. Personally, I believe a good merchandiser should try and get involved in as many areas of the product they are dealing with as possible, as the more you learn and understand about the product and the customer, the better you become at planning the future.

Aspiring fashion professionals often see London as the place to work, but there are lots of great regional employers, such as Matalan. What benefits does living and working in the north-west offer that you might not get elsewhere, such as London?

Purely from a financial point of view, from what I have seen, a lot of retailers in the north-west offer competitive salaries when compared with London, and with house prices and living costs beingconsiderably lower, it is possible to have a better standard of living in the north and get on the property ladder quicker.

From a retail aspect, over the last five years there has been a large increase in the number of retailers basing themselves in the north-west, especially online-only brands, and there are lots of opportunities at different companies. From speaking to friends who have moved to London, there seems to be more of a community feel to retailers in the north-west and the commutes tend to be shorter and less stressful giving a better work/life balance.

From a cultural point view, both Liverpool and Manchester have got lots of bars, restaurants, theatres, arenas, pop-ups and events that are enough to fill up your spare time. The Lake District is just over an hour away and if you do fancy going to London, it’s only two hours on the train.

What did being selected as one of the 30 under 30 mean for you?

It was a really proud moment to know that not only your company recognises the work you are doing, but when put up against your peers in the industry you are doing a great job too. It was great meeting the other 29 people as well, and hearing about their experiences and aspirations.

What advice would you give to someone else looking to follow in your footsteps?

I don’t think there is a magic formula for merchandising. Don’t over-complicate things – keep it simple. Treat others how you want to be treated. Listening to directors and people with experience and learning from them is definitely something people should be conscious of. I have found a lot of things in retail are cyclical, and learning from other people’s mistakes as well as your own can help you progress quicker. I think also having a positive attitude to change is good piece of advice I was given.