With sales under pressure, the merchandiser’s role is more important than ever. By John Ryan

One of the less commented upon effects of the recession for retailers has been to bring the old cliché of right thing, right place, right time more sharply into focus. And within the hierarchy of a retail organisation it’s generally the merchandiser’s role to make this a reality.

Ian Jones, managing director of fashion jewellery chain Azendi, says: “Merchandisers are certainly under pressure to optimise what they do. Buying insufficient stock always hurts more in terms of lost sales.”

He adds that as well as helping to structure the buying of ranges, it’s the job of the merchandiser to “watch the core lines on a weekly basis” and to help decide how much money should be set aside to risk on fashion lines. Merchandisers also have to take a view about when a transfer of stock from one of Azendi’s 15 stores to another would be appropriate.

There are regional differences to the rate at which a line will sell and the merchandiser has to balance the possible loss of sales involved in transferring stock from a branch against potentially increasing sales by having it in a better location. ”We probably spend more time talking about this than anything else at the moment,” says Jones.

Does this mean the pendulum has swung away from the buyer and that it’s the merchandiser who is calling the shots? It used to be the buyers who had the glamour jobs, with the merchandisers all too frequently being viewed as little more than number crunchers.

Although this has long since changed, does the recession mean that now is the merchandiser’s moment? Alan Giles, former chief executive of HMV and chairman of Fat Face at present, doubts this is the case. “I would say both are important. You still need innovative product to persuade people to open their wallets. On the other hand, managing stock turn is more important than ever,” he says.

“The really good retailers are those that have joined the two roles seamlessly. At Fat Face, the head of buying has a merchandising background.”    

For those considering a career in merchandising, it may sound as if a high degree of numeracy is a given, and it is. But, as Jones points out: “It’s not as scientific as we might like it to be. You still have to be able to finesse things at branch level and this may involve a hunch.”

A tough job, therefore, and there are few roles that are more commercially sensitive. But today’s merchandiser fulfils a role that is more central to a retailer than ever.

Merchandiser VS buyer

Points in common

  • Strong numerical ability and the capacity to make decisions quickly and under pressure
  • Negotiation skills

Points of difference

  • Merchandisers must have a strong understanding of stock and be able to take decisions about where it should be and when to push the markdown button. The role is about control
  • Buyers must, above all, have good insight into their market and the ability to temper commercial sense with innovation