Fashion Careers

Fashion Careers: Guide to Visual Merchandising

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8th November 2021

Have you ever thought about who designs the layout of a shop? Who decides which products go where? That’s the job of the Visual Merchandising team!

Visual merchandising is one of the less well-known roles within the fashion industry, but it’s vital to a brand’s success. Good visual merchandising can have a huge impact on sales, profits and customer brand loyalty. 

Joe, a Visual Merchandiser at H&M, says that the main responsibility of a VM team is “to make sure that the store is laid out in an inspiring way for customers; that comes down to the window displays, the mannequins and how each garment is laid out on the shop floor."

Visual merchandisers design and communicate visual ideas and strategies to help promote retail brands. They combine their creativity with business skills to create eye-catching displays that pull customers to stores and drive sales.

Read on to find out what a visual fashion merchandiser does, how much they earn and how you could become a fashion visual merchandiser.

WHAT IS FASHION VISUAL MERCHANDISING?

A fashion visual merchandiser's main responsibility is to make sure stores are laid out in an inspiring way to customers to help drive sales. Visual merchandisers combine their creativity with business skills to communicate visual ideas and strategies to help promote retail brands. This includes researching trends, planning display themes for different seasons, managing the layout of stores, deciding what product goes where, designing window displays and styling mannequins.

“It’s a really empowering role, we have such a heavy part to play on the shop floor... we literally get involved with everything!” says Rosie, a Store Visual Manager at M&S.

As digital platforms continue to increase in importance, there is also a growing demand in the industry for online visual merchandisers. They’re often involved in the design and layout of a brand’s website.

Visual Merchandising is a highly creative department, in which practical people can really thrive. It can be very rewarding to see your designs on full display in stores.

If you’ve got a natural ability to style, then you’d be perfect for the role!
Rosie, Store Visual Manager at M&S

WHAT DOES A FASHION VISUAL MERCHANDISER DO?

The role of a visual merchandiser can vary widely from brand to brand. They typically work both in-store and in head office. 

A key aspect of being a visual merchandiser is to regularly update retail store displays. They must take into consideration the seasons of the year, annual events, current fashion trends, as well as sales and promotions.

“The main driver of visual merchandising is commerciality. We increase profits for the store, by creating a space that is inspiring for customers and makes them want to shop there!” says Joe.

The main responsibilities of a fashion visual merchandiser include:

  • Designing store plans and displays
  • Sourcing materials
  • Analysing competitors
  • Creating visual merchandising packs
  • Analysing performance
  • Travelling to stores

DESIGNING STORE PLANS AND DISPLAYS

As a VM, you’ll design store floor plans and displays and then implement them in stores. For example, you might need to create displays that promote specific products or promotions. Researching current and future trends in design and lifestyle can help inform your creative ideas. 

To create effective displays, you’ll need to consider space, lighting, store guidelines and safety. You’ll also need to think about the overall image of a brand and make sure that this is reflected in your designs.

All stores must look and feel the same to customers, as it helps to build brand loyalty and trust. However, this doesn’t have to mean that every store is identical. You can use your creative skills to make the best use of each store’s layout, space and architecture.

The best thing about being a VM is the freedom you are given. You get given guidelines, but each store is different, so you have to work to your store’s environment and adapt,
says Rosie.

Displays are often updated several times a year, in line with sales promotions and seasonal changes. As soon as you finish one, you’ll start planning for the next!

SOURCING MATERIALS

In addition to researching and planning the general design of a store, a visual merchandiser may also be responsible for sourcing display materials for a specific store or for a number of retail stores. They'll need to be able to source models, props, equipment and signs based on the brief and budget they are working with.

When sourcing materials, VM’s will need to work closely with suppliers and have a basic understanding of budgeting and costing. They'll also have to be aware of the ethical, political, and environmental implications of sourcing materials.

Being able to effectively communicate and liaise with suppliers is crucial for ensuring that displays are completed on time and to a high standard.

ANALYSING COMPETITORS

Part of being a Visual Merchandiser is making sure that you are outshining your competition. As such, it can be helpful to carry out ‘comparison shops’ and competitor analysis. Comp shopping not only helps VM’s determine who their competitors are but it can also help them make sure they are promoting the brand's unique selling points (USPs).

When conducting an in-store or online comp shop, you'll need to consider

  • What the front of the store or homepage and banners look like
  • What is on sale or promotion?
  • Are there any particular styles that are revamped every season?
  • What your competitors' marketing and messaging is

“We have to know our customers, the potential of the product and the commercial strategies of our competitors,” says Julia, a Visual Merchandiser at Mango.

CREATING VISUAL MERCHANDISING PACKS

Once designs have been finalised, you might need to design branded visual merchandising packs to send out to branches. These packs communicate visual guidelines to staff across the brand, including layout principles, visual dressings and signage. You may also visit stores to teach sales staff how to display merchandise. Sometimes, you might help them to assemble to dismantle installations, as well as dressing mannequins and arranging the new displays.

Creating visual merchandising packs helps everyone working for the brand to have a shared vision. It can also be really useful for reiterating who the target audience is, how to appeal to them and sharing with staff how this can increase brand loyalty and sales.

ANALYSING PERFORMANCE

Visual Merchandisers need strong numerical and analytical skills as they need to analyse the sales performance of their work. This provides them with the insight they need to make key decisions on their strategy and what products to promote next. 

VM’s use several factors to measure and analyse their performance including customer visits, customer spend, visit duration, returning customers and average purchase total. The way this data is collected will vary depending on whether you work in a store or online.

“We analyse and monitor the sales figures and indicators daily. This allows us to make decisions on the product and improve displays, increasing sales and maximising the profitability of the store,” says Leydis, another Visual Merchandiser at Mango.

Joe agrees: “It’s important for us to look at the figures and check how we’re doing. If sales have done well, it’s an amazing feeling, because we’ve had so much involvement in that!”

WORKING WITH OTHER DEPARTMENTS

As a VM, you’ll often work with other departments to create your work. You’ll work alongside buying, merchandising, operations and design to decide which products to promote and key items for a season. Plans and themes are developed months in advance and incorporate window displays, store displays, signage and pricing. Almost every department in a brand could have some input into these ideas.

Justin Simpson, Head of Visual Merchandising at The White Company and one of the FRA’s Industry Mentors, says that “the most difficult part of the job is often coming to a compromise creatively,” as you’ll often need to balance lots of different opinions!

You’ll meet with business, sales and retail teams to discuss sales strategies. For example, if you’re planning a promotional event, you’ll need to decide when these will be communicated to customers in stores.  

It's an exciting role because “if you don’t make the correct decision, sales go down," says Julia, Regional Visual Merchandiser at Zara.

When setting up displays in stores, you’ll be working with customer assistants and retail managers. After displays have finished and the season has moved on, you’ll often need to give feedback to head office and buying teams with the results of your work. They’ll need to know what worked and what didn’t, so everyone can use this feedback to improve future designs.

TRAVEL

Once you have reached a more senior role in Visual Merchandising, there could be the opportunity for international travel if you work for a Global brand. As a Visual Merchandiser, you might be responsible for making sure there is consistency in branding across stores and visiting each of those stores could be a part of the role. 

“It’s an adventure, you get to go to different places and meet new people. It’s amazing,” says Julia.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD FASHION VISUAL MERCHANDISER?

A successful Fashion Visual Merchandiser needs a perfect balance of creative and analytical skills. 

Justine Simpson says, to be a good visual merchandiser, you “have to be quite resourceful and good at finding solutions. You also have to be good at taking feedback and finding a compromise…you can get a long way by being helpful, solution-driven and having a positive attitude.”

Monica describes the perfect visual merchandiser as “empathetic, open and flexible!”

Leydis agrees: “Visual merchandisers are creative, active, optimistic and decisive!”

FASHION VISUAL MERCHANDISER SKILLS

1. Creativity and Design Skills

As it’s such a practical career, visual merchandisers need to be highly creative with a talent for design, colour and style. To reach the higher levels of the career, you’ll need to demonstrate real creative flair and imagination in your ideas. 

2. IT and CAD Skills

To create designs, you’ll need good IT skills. You’ll need to use computer-aided design (CAD) software, such as AutoCAD, Mockshop or Adobe Creative Suite. You’ll use these to develop plans to share with your team and you’ll need to interpret others’ plans too.

3. Trend-Forecasting

As a visual merchandiser, developing excellent trend-forecasting skills is key. If you’ve got a strong interest in current and future design trends, you’ll be able to create existing and dynamic installations that inspire customers to shop. 

We look for someone who is hard-working and a team player, as well as someone who is trend-aware
Rosie

4. Communication and leadership skills

Strong and effective communication skills are important for almost any career. As a visual merchandiser, you’ll need to be able to share complex ideas and information in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand. Working alongside many departments, you’ll also need to have excellent teamwork skills and be able to work well with a variety of people. The capacity to work with constructive criticism is also vital - not everyone’s going to like your ideas every time!

Leadership skills can also be beneficial. You’ll need to be able to lead projects from design through to completion, following strict budgets and tight deadlines.

It’s a dynamic and creative job that requires a good knowledge of trends, marketing and sales analysis
Julia, Zara

5. Commercial Awareness

To be successful, you’ll need good commercial awareness and sharp analytical skills. Combined with an in-depth understanding of your brand, this will give you the confidence you need to make important decisions.

You’ll potentially also need a good level of stamina and physical fitness. Visual merchandisers often need to lift heavy objects, climb ladders and be able to build complicated designs. You might need to use power tools and other equipment. 

You need to pay attention to the smallest details and be able to work fast!
Julia, Mango

FASHION VISUAL MERCHANDISER SALARY

The salary of a fashion merchandiser can range from around £12,000 - £55,000+ depending on experience.

  • Assistant Visual Merchandiser: roughly £12,000 - £18,000 (sometimes this role is combined with a customer assistant role)
  • Visual Merchandising Coordinator: roughly £20,000 - £27,000
  • Visual Merchandising Area Manager: roughly £30,000+
  • Head of Visual Merchandising: roughly £55,000+

There’s also lots of opportunity for freelance and consultancy work, particularly with smaller or independent brands. You could also specialise in visual merchandising installation or prop-making, as large businesses can often outsource projects. 

HOW TO BECOME A FASHION VISUAL MERCHANDISER?

There are several ways to become a Fashion Visual Merchandiser. 

It is possible to begin your career working on the shop floor as a sales assistant and move to Visual Merchandising. You might keep working in-store, or become a Field Visual Merchandiser, depending on the brand.

In addition, you can study a specialist Visual Merchandising course, which will help build your industry knowledge and can help accelerate your career.

QUALIFICATIONS

To progress your Visual Merchandising career into a head office role, you’ll need training and experience using CAD design software. 

If you don’t have A-Levels yet, our Level 3 Fashion Retail course is also a great place to start. At the Fashion Retail Academy, we offer a specialist Level 4 Visual Merchandising diploma that's perfect for kickstarting your career. The course covers a range of topics including retail store concepts, designing and installing window displays, branding and contextual fashion retail studies.

It can also be beneficial to have a driving licence, as working as a Field Visual Merchandiser requires frequent travel between stores.

I learnt so many skills that I use every single day!
Paula, a Womenswear Visual Merchandiser at Selfridges and FRA graduate

INTERNSHIPS AND WORK EXPERIENCE

Retail experience is extremely helpful for a visual merchandising career. This will give you an understanding of what drives sales, and how customers respond to visual decorations in-store. Experience in setting up displays and arranging products can be beneficial. If you have no visual merchandising experience, it’s often possible to start as a retail sales assistant and transition across when you’ve built up your skills.

At the Fashion Retail Academy, all our courses include a three-week work placement with a major fashion or retail brand. This provides an amazing boost to your CV. 73% of students on our Level 4 Visual Merchandising course said that their work placements gave them an advantage when applying for jobs.

Read our guide How To Get Started In The Fashion Industry for more information.

Think fashion visual merchandising is the right role for you? With the Fashion Retail Academy, you can take the first step toward your dream career.

If you have any more questions about any of the courses on offer at The Fashion Retail Academy, send us an email at info@fra.ac.uk - we’d love to hear from you!

[Updated: 13 October 2022]

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