Brands Behind the Scenes: Merchandising at M&S
We recently went to M&S head office to catch up with our FRA alumni, Charles and Molly, who graduated from BA (Hons) Buying & Merchandising in 2018. Charles works as an Assistant Merchandiser in homeware, and Molly is a Merchandising Admin Assistant in the kidswear department.
You can watch the full interview on our YouTube channel, including an exclusive look inside M&S’s head office building in Paddington. You can also see the rest of our Brands Behind the Scenes series, including our interview with The White Company’s Head of Visual Merchandising and Footwear Design at ASOS.
Why did you decide to work in fashion merchandising?
Charles: I used to work in retail, and I wanted a role that had that transition between shop floor and head office. I like merchandising because I work with product every day, and there’s a bit of maths as well.
Molly: I came straight from university so I’ve never worked in retail before. I love analytics, numbers and fashion, and merchandising is a nice bridge between the two!
What’s the difference between buying and merchandising?
M: The buyers are product - that’s their focus. They also need to manage the critical path and make sure everything is on time. Product is their baby, and then they give it to us!
C: Buying and merchandising are both quite broad roles, there is a lot of crossover. We do work with them a lot! Within M&S, buying is more about product development, managing the critical path and prices. Purchasing is more within our remit in merchandising. We raise the purchase orders, for example.
What does your day look like as a merchandiser?
C: It’s quite a broad role. You have to speak with a lot of other teams, including buying, garment tech and allocation. I spend quite a lot of my day looking at reporting: I look at performance, how products are doing in sales and then make decisions based on that.
M: My role is similar. I look at a lot of trading reports to see how things are doing. I also speak to a lot of outsourcing offices in different countries, like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - that’s quite fun!
What is the best part about the job?
C: There are so many positives! Mainly, you really feel like you’re making a contribution to the brand you work for. It’s great when you’ve bought products, made a range plan and then see the products being sold. You think, “I was part of that!”
M: I like that we’re at the end stage of the process. Other people design and develop the product, but we decide where it goes and where the best place for it is. Ultimately, that will have a big impact on if it does well or not.
And the hardest part?
C: The hardest part is the pace. It’s very stimulating, you have to be quite reactive. You have to make some difficult decisions, which can have financial implications for the brand. You’re making the final decision on what customers are going to get, and where. But the challenges can be positives!
What skills do you need to be a good merchandiser?
C: You have to be reactive, adaptable and be able to work under pressure. You need to always be up for a challenge, and not be afraid to question things! The job varies greatly based on product area, so you don’t have to be one thing or another. I work in homeware, so volume is a little slower compared to clothing.
How do your experiences from the FRA help you in your role?
C: Studying at the FRA was a great opportunity. We learnt a lot about the different ways of working and how businesses vary. The tutors have all had lots of experience working in industry, and they share their experiences and stories with you. It’s very applied learning, and we met a lot of brands and retailers which was great for networking.
M: I recommend going to the FRA; it built my confidence massively! Alongside studying actual fashion merchandising, you learn supporting skills like presenting and CV building. It was very rounded, and I took all those skills into my job and it has helped me progress a lot.
What was the best thing about studying at the FRA?
M: It was great to meet so many brands and retailers. It’s great for your career to work with so many other people, and learn how they work and how much businesses value FRA graduates.
C: I would agree! The FRA has so many opportunities to engage and network with different brands, different tutors or people with different experiences. You learn so much, particularly from a technical point of view. That was my favourite part of my degree: the garment technology/fabric module. That’s been very helpful for my job, as it often comes up but I don’t think you get that opportunity at most places. Especially at work, there’s not much time to learn extra things when you’ve got your job to do!
If you’re interested in following in Charles’ and Molly’s footsteps, you can study our accelerated 2-year BA (Hons) Buying & Merchandising degree. We also have a Level 4 Merchandising for Fashion diploma, which will prepare you for an entry-level industry role as an Allocator or Merchandising Admin Assistant.
You can watch our full interview with Charles and Molly on our Youtube channel. Keep an eye out for more Brands Behind the Scenes videos coming soon!