We recently caught up with Justine Simpson, Head of Visual Merchandising at The White Company, to talk about her career in visual merchandising and her role as one of the FRA’s Industry Mentors.
You can watch the full interview on our YouTube channel, including an exclusive look inside The White Company’s head office in Television Centre, White City.
We’ve got lots more exciting Brands Behind the Scenes interviews coming soon, including designers at ASOS and FRA alumni at Marks & Spencer.
How did you get into visual merchandising?
Whilst I was at university studying to be a teacher, I was working part-time in Accessorize and Monsoon. Some people used to come in and do the windows and the store layout, and I thought: “Hang on a minute, no one told me about this job at school! Maybe this is what I want to do…”
I swapped to an Education and Art for the Community degree, and started working full-time at Monsoon and Accessorize in my final year. After I graduated, I was offered a role in the visual merchandising team. So, off I went, around the country in my car!
A year later, I moved to head office to be in charge of Monsoon’s children’s guidelines. Over 14 years, I worked my way up the VM department at Monsoon before coming here to The White Company.
Can you describe the White Company aesthetic?
One of the things we say as a business is ‘perfect simplicity’ or ‘simplicity for life’. Everything we do comes back to that. We want people to feel like they can achieve that at home!
When you walk into one of our stores, we want you to get the feeling of ‘aaaah’. That’s the best compliment we can get! We want our customers to feel like they're coming home; we want them to feel inspired by our stores. So rather than just a traditional window display, we want customers to think: ‘I could do that at home’ or ‘I want that in my house’.
What does your day as Head of VM look like?
I’m sure lots of people say this but no two days are the same! At the moment, we’re working on setting up a new window to be signed off. In a couple of weeks, we’ll start planning our strategy for spring. Other days, we might be out in stores setting up for a new season. As the Head of VM, I’m also responsible for managing the team and supporting them with their development.
What is the best thing about your job?
I love the power of a transformation; I love a before and after! I think that’s what visual merchandising gives you: whether you’re swapping into a new season creatively, or redesigning a store layout.
What is the most difficult part about being a visual merchandiser?
The most difficult part of the job is coming to a compromise creatively. Part of visual merchandising is hearing lots of people’s opinions and taking them on board. Sometimes it’s not down to whether something is commercially right or wrong, or the figures behind it, it might just be personal opinion. Finding a compromise that makes everyone happy can be the biggest challenge!
Do you have any career highlights?
I’ve had the chance to work on so many projects; it’s been amazing! The most exciting was in 2019 when we opened a pop-up shop in The Hamptons. We had a short turnaround and a tiny budget, which made us much more resourceful creatively.
I flew to New York with another visual merchandiser, and we rented a car and drove ourselves to the building. We were handed a set of keys and that was it: we were setting up a shop in The Hamptons!
We had to use the equipment left by the previous retailer and make it look like The White Company brand. For example, we bought some vinyl to stick on a glass table to make it look like marble. It made us more imaginative because we had such a small budget!
Tell us about your role as an FRA Industry Mentor?
I’ve been mentoring Macy for just over a year now. I’ve loved meeting her and hearing about her courses; I love to know what she’s learning. It’s also great to hear her views on things.
COVID interrupted what I thought we would be able to do together in the mentoring program. I thought she’d be able to come out to stores with me and spend more time in the office. But we made it work through video! She was able to come into the office couple of weeks ago, now that things have improved. It was lovely for her to see where we work.
The courses and the content that students learn at the FRA is amazing. I feel like I need to up my game when I speak to Macy! In normal circumstances, students get invaluable experience from their placements too.
I’d love more people working in retail to be involved in the mentor programme. Nothing beats that first-hand experience of working in the industry. Building a network of people will make such a difference to your career!
What skills do you need to be a good visual merchandiser?
I think you have to be quite resourceful and good at finding solutions. You also have to be good at taking feedback and finding a compromise. There’s absolutely an element of creativity in it as well! Even without experience, you can get a long way by being helpful, solution-driven and having a positive attitude.
Do you have any advice for aspiring VMs?
In this day and age, the competition is so steep. We put up a job advert a few weeks ago for an area role, and within one day, we had over 100 applicants. We had to close it two weeks early! To aspiring VMs, I would say: what makes you above and beyond?
Out of those 100 applicants, any of them could have come and worked for us. But what makes you above and beyond helps your application stand out in the sifting process, and you’ll make a great impression in an interview.
What does the future hold for visual merchandising?
I think the future of VM is a very interesting place. During the pandemic, lots of companies had to make some tough decisions. Lots of businesses on the high street have got rid of their VM team.
Those brands now don’t have anyone skilled in window design or store layout, and they won’t have props to help identify their brand. In retail, you’re always working further in advance. Maybe we won’t see it now, but their stores could look quite different next year!
For The White Company, the VM team is very important. The product can be fairly consistent season to season because we have that simple brand aesthetic. One white candle in a box can look the same as another! We help to show the customer that something is new, and that’s what they should be looking at. I think we’ll be a bit of a secret weapon when the rest of the high street might be missing their VM teams!
You can watch our full interview with Justine on our Youtube channel. Keep an eye out for more Brands Behind the Scenes videos coming soon!
If you’d like to be a Visual Merchandiser, you can study our specialist Level 4 Visual Merchandising diploma.