Match Yourself to a Career in Merchandising

13 03 2010

by Tracy Weber

If you have an interest in the fashion world, but don’t want to design, taking up a career in merchandise coordinating may be the unconventional job for you. There is very minimal desk time involved with this career path. Actually, there is more to merchandising than people realize or have probably ever thought about. To understand the field better, I spoke with Merchandise Coordinator Emily Klear and Visual Displayer Ann Jillson. Although they both work for The North Face (TNF) retail company’s Chicagoland district, this brand serves as just one example of what to expect.

Ann Jillson displaying her mannequin, as she lifts it onto the top shelf

Klear and Jillson’s positions have different expectations, but are both under the merchandising umbrella. “It’s a great job for people who don’t want to sit behind a desk,” Klear says. Klear is technically part of the corporate team as a Merchandise Coordinator and travels between stores that carry TNF products, while Jillson works in one retail location as a full-time Visual Displayer. The corporate office provides a generic directive with pictures for the merchandisers to follow, but because each store has a different floor plan the directive acts as a guide that needs to be interpreted. Window displays are set up with mannequins, equipment props, and removable window clings like snowflakes during the winter months.

Klear tries to make the main walls of the store look like the directive with the specified shirts, pants or jackets displayed according to the company’s plan. But the rest of the store offers more artistic freedom. With the corporate offices far away in California, Klear and Jillson know the Chicagoland customers better and can tailor their displays to suit the Chicagoland customers’ expectations. While some mannequins’ clothings need to correspond with the product category that the brand is marketing for the month, Jillson gets free reign over the majority of mannequins, dressing them as she chooses.

As a Merchandise Coordinator, Klear either drives or flies to a few stores that carry TNF products. At retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, and select Macy’s locations, she makes sure the displays look good and organizes the product. She acts as a part of the sales team by promoting the brand at these stores, but also as part of the marketing team because her arrangements often display the signature TNF red color scheme to stand out from other brands being sold. Furthermore, Klear helps to introduce TNF products to new stores in the Chicago area, Wisconsin, and recently Philadelphia and Denver.

Having some knowledge of corporate businesses and how they operate is important to have for careers such as these. Klear says that traveling for work requires adhering to a budget, keeping track of how many miles you drive, airfare, food costs, and making sure you don’t burn through your allotted funds by staying at luxurious hotels, like the Four Seasons. Otherwise, having creative intuition is helpful, as is being able to take criticism well. Jillson mentions other important work attributes for this type of career, “…willingness to adapt at a moments notice, [being] easygoing, self determination, and being willing to compromise.”

Neither Klear nor Jillson have formal training in the field, but there are four-year degrees offered at institutions of higher education, like Columbia College’s Fashion/Retail Management major, Indiana University’s Apparel Merchandising major, and University of Wisconsin’s Retailing major. However, Klear thinks it might prove more beneficial to not have a degree specific to merchandising. She recommends getting a business degree because it prepares coordinators for vertical mobility up the career ladder, which leads to further involvement with the business aspects of merchandising.

Klear explains, “It’s like being a painter—either you’re good at it or you’re not. You can’t really learn it.” She feels that having a natural knack for merchandising is vital. The ability to match colors and create outfits out of available merchandise, organizing different styles of clothes or products into categories, and being aware of what is visually appealing to consumers is simply a talent not easily learned.

Ann Jillson arranging the clothing display

Free-lance merchandising affords flexible work options because not all companies have permanent staff to arrange displays. Boutiques and new stores that need an entire shop’s worth of clothing installed are other good places to gain experience.

Also, not only women work in merchandising. Because the field is related to fashion, many people associate the career as being feminine, but Klear says there are in fact two men on the corporate merchandising team who thoroughly enjoy the work. The guys get to organize product and figure out how the merchandise can be arranged in a limited amount of space, they decide where large pictures should be placed and even set up tent and equipment displays. Doing this kind of merchandise work is like solving a puzzle when trying to arrange products. There is always something to do, and it’s usually something different each time.

The job can be stressful at times when there is a conflict of how a display should be set up. There can be times when Jillson has to change mannequins she had just dressed because of creative differences with higher management. The last three months of the year tend to be the most stressful because there are more displays and events occurring for the holiday season. Klear says her average 40-hour week can jump to 50 or 60-hours, with occasional weekend work for trade shows where physical labor is more intensive. Even in the store there is a need for physical strength. Jillson says, “I’m on my feet all day lifting mannequins, climbing up and down ladders, lifting boxes, moving signage and so on.”

Both Jillson and Klear agree that their career path offers substantially enough income to live in Chicago. But they also like that their job can be done in any city if they ever choose to move. Jillson explains why she enjoys her work, “You never really know what’s going to be asked of you until you show up. One minute I might be drilling holes into the bottom of a [clothes] fixture to replace a wheel and the next minute I’m dressing mannequins.” The wide range of projects keeps the job from getting monotonous or routine, and that’s what Jillson likes the most. Every day holds different tasks and sometimes there are unexpected challenges that make this an exciting and unique career.


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