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Is a Career in Visual Merchandising Right for You?

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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.

“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

A Day in the Life of a Visual Merchandiser

The role of a visual merchandiser can vary widely from brand to brand.

“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.

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

As well as the general design, you’ll also need to source materials, including models, props, equipment and signs. You’ll have a budget to stick to, and you’ll need to negotiate good deals with the suppliers of visual materials you want to use. 

Analysing competitors

It can also be helpful to carry out ‘comparison shops’ to see what your competitor brands are doing. “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.

Analysing Performance

Analysing sales performance is also an important part of the visual merchandiser’s role. “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!”

Travel

At higher levels, there could be opportunities 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. “It’s an adventure, you get to go to different places and meet new people. It’s amazing,” says Julia, Regional Visual Merchandiser at Zara.

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 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!”
Julia, from 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 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!

Job progression

  • You’ll typically start as an Assistant Visual Merchandiser in a store, earning between £12,000 and £18,000. Sometimes this role is combined with a Customer Assistant position.
  • With experience, you can become a Visual Merchandising Coordinator earning between £20,000 and £27,000.
  • At senior management level, working as a Visual Merchandising Area manager, you can be earning £30,000 or more.
  • At the highest level, as Head of Visual Merchandising, you can be earning upwards of £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. 

Key skills for a career in visual merchandising

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!”

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. 

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 other’s plans too.

Trend-Forecasting

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

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. 

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 to 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,
says Julia.

Commercial Awareness

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

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. 

Getting Started in a Visual Merchandising Career

It is possible to start on the shop floor for a brand as a customer assistant and move to visual merchandising. You might keep working in-store, or become a Field Visual Merchandiser, depending on the brand.

Qualifications

To move up to a head office role, you’ll need training and experience using the CAD design software. Studying a specialist Visual Merchandising course can help accelerate your career.

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.

It can also be beneficial to have a driving license, 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 alumni student.

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 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 FRA, all of 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.

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!

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