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Merchandising as an area of work

Merchandising: area of work

Merchandisers put their analytical skills into practice to decide what should be sold where and the quantity of stock that is required. Business-minded graduates may find themselves well suited to this fast-paced area of retail.
The decisions that a merchandiser makes are crucial to the success of the business.

What is merchandising?

A merchandiser decides which stock to allocate to which stores and in what quantity. For example, a large store based in London may sell more dresses than a smaller store based in Leicester. As such, the merchandiser responsible for dresses (or perhaps for clothing in a supermarket) has to decide how many dresses or how many different lines of dresses each store needs. If the merchandiser were to give the smaller store the same amount of stock as the larger store then they may run the risk of not being able to sell it all. This could mean having to pay for the stock to be stored in warehouses. Or it could mean having to sell off the stock at a reduced price in order to get rid of it. Alternatively, if the merchandiser underestimated the amount of stock the larger store would get through it could cause a demand problem. Customers might not be able to get the product they want and so may turn to a different retailer. The decisions that a merchandiser makes are therefore crucial to the success of the business; if they get it wrong, there could be considerable financial implications.

Merchandisers work closely with buyers to identify any upcoming trends that they need to satisfy. Buyers choose which products the retailer should sell and the merchandisers decide how much of each product to buy and where the stock should be allocated. In order to make these decisions, merchandisers constantly review sales history and monitor how well different products are performing; this helps them to identify which products need restocking and which ones aren’t selling as well as expected. They need to understand customer trends and consider factors such as how variations in footfall and demographic will affect the type and amount of stock required in different stores. The main priority of a merchandiser is to make sure that the departments or stores for which they are responsible meet their sales targets and ensure a healthy profit margin. If margins are below expectations, they will need to analyse the reasons behind this and alert management to the problem.

What degree background or qualification do I need for a career in merchandising?

Many graduate schemes or entry-level roles in merchandising do not require a specific degree subject, but some may ask for a numerate, analytical or business-related subject. Some employers may also ask that you have a particular degree classification. John Lewis, for example, requires candidates for their graduate merchandising programme to have a 2.1.

Postgraduate courses in merchandising are available and can help you develop your knowledge of this area. However, it is worth checking with individual employers to find out their thoughts on postgraduate courses; none of the major retailers have roles specifically for postgraduates. Moreover, according to Tejal Raichura, a merchandiser for women's casual jersey-wear at Next, ‘a postgraduate qualification is useful if you can apply the things you learned to the role, but it isn’t usually a requirement.’

There are some merchandising placements available that could help you get ahead, although any experience of working in a retail environment will give you valuable insights into aspects that a merchandiser needs to consider. Different types of customer, for example, which products sell out and which ones don’t.

What skills do I need for a graduate job in merchandising?

  • A love of retail and good commercial awareness
  • Excellent data analysis skills and confidence working with numbers
  • Presentation skills and the ability to explain data clearly
  • The ability to use database and spreadsheet software
  • Strong decision-making skills
  • The ability to identify and offer effective solutions to problems
  • Good communication and teamwork skills.

Merchandising graduate schemes

Graduate schemes are a great way to start out in a particular area of retail and to gain the skills and experience needed to maximise your potential for career progression. Some of the larger retailers, such as John Lewis, have specific graduate schemes for merchandising. Others may offer entry-level roles that will also give you the training needed to progress, such as those offered by Arcadia.

A graduate will usually join a scheme as a trainee assistant merchandiser, which is the case for Marks & Spencer, and they will normally work across a range of departments in order to gain experience. For example, within a supermarket chain a graduate might work across clothing and then electronics.

There is great potential for quick progression within merchandising. As you gain experience, you will most likely become an assistant merchandiser responsible for a small range. At both Arcadia and Marks & Spencer, for example, you may move up into an assistant merchandiser role after just 12–18 months. Eventually, you may progress to being a merchandiser, overseeing a large area within a department. In smaller businesses you may be responsible for a whole department.