Do I need a degree?
I am constantly asked this question but in my opinion, for this career a degree isn't a necessity. Sure it looks good on paper, but are degrees really worth that much nowadays anyway? I think they have become too popular - anyone can get one after all (maybe not so much next year...) and so they have lost their value. What is rare, however, is that core work experience. Anyone can read books, research online and sit and be lectured on all things visual but because the role is so 'hands-on' it's the skills we want to see the most. If you have the actual job role under your belt, along with all the management skills you would learn along the way; you could go far in this field - degree or no degree.
|Retail guru Mary Portas started her career as a Visual Merchandiser|
So how do I get started?
I got started through working in retail from the tender age of sixteen. Not only did I learn all the usual retail work (tills, delivery procedures and stock takes) I learnt about the wonderful side of retail: visual merchandising. This combined with my retail knowledge ensures one thing that some vm's tend to forget, that old cliche: the customer always comes first. At the end of the day we can make things look great, but we are there to sell - to make money. So displays need to be inspiring, shoppable and appealing to your market. I think I would have misplaced the importance of the customer if it wasn't for my employment in retail itself.
But anyone can work in retail. I want to specialise in visual merchandising.
Then do it! It's no good wishing and wanting if you aren't willing to go out there and get the experience you want and need. I got myself involved in every aspect of VM whilst working on the shopfloor; everything from stock merchandising, window displays and mannequin styling. I took photographs of everything I did, afterall it's a 'visual' job so 'visual' evidence is a must have. Whilst I was studying for my A Levels, I seeked out work experience with visual display teams. I wrote letters, emails and telephoned companies until one was willing to take me on. It may take time to get a placement as companies worry about the safety of work experience with visual teams (there's lots of ladder climbing, tool using and all round riskiness of taking on someone ammature). But, if you're willing to give up your free time and they get to gain a free employee - it's a win win situation!
When a department store took me on I was over the moon. I got to experience every VM genre (home, beauty, menswear and ladieswear). Again, I took so many photographs and built a portfolio of anything and everything I did from mannequin styling, window installations, stock merchandising, promotional and events set up - everything!
|Christmas is the biggest event of the VM calendar|
What if I can't get work experience?
There's always something along the lines of VM you can get involved in. Why not volunteer at a charity shop and get involed in creating exciting window displays or have a go at remerchandising the stock? This would be a challenge what with the mismatch of clothes but atleast it would show on your CV that you're thinking on your feet and your eager to develop your visual skills in regards to future employment.
What else can I do?
I always take photographs whilst I am out and about of anything in the retail world that excites or inspires me and I've built up a hefty portfolio of bits and bobs that I like. Not only does it give you awareness of competitors but it helps to influence your own creative skills and ideas which would be valuable to any future employer.
But where are the jobs?
Most brands have a visual team whether it be a field team or instore team. Instore teams are normally in department stores such as Debenhams, House of Fraser, John Lewis and Selfridges although Topshop and H&M are known to have instore positions too. They do everything from window displays, mannequin styling and conduct sale and promotional set ups. Field teams belong to brands such as Next, Miss Selfridge and River Island. They travel from one store to the next implementing the latest window displays and advising on merchandise layout. Job sites specific to the retail sector such as Retail Choice and InRetail advertise popular high street brand vacancies. Or try specific brand career pages on their official websites for more positions.
It is also worth sending out your CV and cover letter to enquire individually to stores as some don't advertise online to cut costs.
What should I take to the interview?
All of your creative evidence - work experience photographs of anything visual merchandising, art work such as things you have made or drawings and paintings. Make sure your presentation is high as this is a visual aspect that will be taken into consideration. Dress to impress - go fashionable and show off your prospective styling skills.
|A mannequin will be your new best friend if you want to be a Visual Merchandiser!|
I can't wait to make things look pretty!
A huge wake up call to all those that think this is the 'pretty pretty' side of retail - it ain't. It's hardwork! Be prepared to have bruised sore knees from constantly working on the floor; have no nails from using tools, picking off vinyls and breaking them from carting heavy objects such as mannequins around all day; getting hot and sweaty in those windows when the sun is blaring through the glass at you; using lots of cleaning chemicals to keep up those high visual standards; to work toward tight deadlines in a high stress level job. Still interested?
Follow my own career path:
Retail Job > A Level Studies > VM work experience placement > Full time VM job
- Seek work experience during busy periods in the visual diary: January>February = Christmas take down, Spring window/scheme set up, Valentine's Day promotional events, May= Summer windows
August/Sepetember/October = Autumn windows, Christmas set up period
- Do your research about specific brands as the VM role is different between each company
- Speak to VM's instore if you ever see them - ask advice and build contacts
- Be determined; it won't happen over night but you will get there eventually.
All information given here is in relation to my own experience and knowledge of Visual Merchandising
Image 1 taken from www.mary-portas.com
Image 2 taken from www.stainesguardian.co.uk
Image 3 taken from www.visualmerchandisingcourses.co.uk