Fast Track: How to get a cushy job in furnishing

Retailing jobs in interiors can be a dream. So how do you get your foot in the right door? Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Culture
If you think you have a flair for interior design, a retail career selecting, buying and merchandising home furnishings may seem a canny choice. However, jobs for those eager to spot the next interiors trend take careful and persistent hunting out.

Nineties consumer obsession with interiors and the popularity of TV series such as Changing Rooms has prompted a boom in high-street sales. Anecdotal evidence points to rapid growth in sales of furniture, paints, wallpaper and other home accessories, and research supports this claim. According to the retail analysts Verdict, total retail sales of these household goods topped pounds 7.4bn last year.

"Houseware" is the UK's fastest growing retail sector, confirms the analyst company, Corporate Intelligence on Retailing. Furniture sales were up 14 per cent in 1997, and textiles and wallpaper by 16 per cent. "It's been on a roll since the end of the recession," says analyst, Robert Clark. "But it's a hard market to monitor, as business is split between so many retailers."

At one end of the spectrum are the major warehouse stores such as MFI, DFS and their more fashionable rival IKEA. Then there are the growing number of high-street specialists led by Heals and Habitat, with The Pier, Jerry's Home Store, Muji and independent operators such as London-based Purves & Purves in hot pursuit.

Department stores such as John Lewis and Marks & Spencer, and now supermarkets, are also driving sales.

Few, however, offer a structured career plan for graduates eager to exploit their flair. Formal schemes are provided by large chains such as John Lewis and Debenhams, but Heals (with just three UK stores), and Jerry's, which has operated in Britain for just four years, claim they are not yet big enough.

One thing to consider is what opportunities for specialisation larger department stores provide. John Lewis, for example, recruits around 25 graduates a year on to a broad-based training scheme. However, it prefers participants to achieve comprehensive experience in all departments; opportunities to specialise in buying will not arise for the first few years.

John Lewis's fast-track management course gives all participants comprehensive in-store experience for 12 to 21 months. Graduates become junior managers at one of the partnership's 23 UK branches within eight weeks, responsible for a section of one of the chain's specialist departments.

Trainees progress up through the ranks of section and departmental manager before they get an opportunity to specialise in areas such as furnishings and interiors selection or design. "After a number of years, they are free to move across into buying, although their abilities will be judged on their commercial, rather than design, capabilities," explains Debbie Ogborne, John Lewis's graduate recruitment co-ordinator.

Buying and product selection positions are limited, however. "Where Marks & Spencer has teams of 20 or more responsible for buying products, we have one person overseeing each line on behalf of the whole business," she says.

Lines such as furnishing textiles, hard furnishings and furnishing accessories each have a buyer and assistant buyer. Assistants without extensive in- store experience, such as that provided by the management training scheme, are unlikely to become buyers, Ogborne adds.

Debenhams, meanwhile, runs a management training programme that takes on 40 graduates a year; a further 40 are recruited to specific disciplines such as buying and merchandising, design, personnel and training, and finance.

Participants have a chance to specialise early - after 12-15 months, they can reach assistant buyer or assistant merchandiser positions, says Julia Durbin, Debenhams' personnel controller. Even so, she warns against specialising too early. "It narrows your options."

Trainees are taught about identifying and sourcing lines and liaising with suppliers. Those specialising in merchandising will be responsible for ordering and projecting sales. Half a dozen or so are specifically recruited into these departments each year, and around 500 people work in merchandising and buying across the 87-store chain.

An alternative route is to apply to an interiors specialist. Habitat, for example, operates a management training programme that is open to anyone, but most likely to be filled by those with retail experience. Graduates with a specific art or design background will be taken into the chain's merchandising and buying department.

It's a tough business, breaking into the buying and selection side, admits Andrew Purves, co-founder of Purves & Purves. "All but one of our 24 employees are graduates," he explains. "It's a reflection of the limited opportunities for many taking degrees in furniture, three-dimensional design and technical design."

The type of customer Purves & Purves gets demands a high level of knowledge from sales staff, he adds. Given that the company currently has just one shop, this means staff are well qualified to take advantage of any opening that arises.

"We are gradually moving people into buying, but only as our business grows," Mr Purves adds. It may be a "roundabout route" to working in interiors design, but it's a good place to start.

"People who begin on the shop floor can eventually move into wholesale companies, product development or design."

Those considering this route should use caution, however. "Housewares are about discretionary spending: as incomes rise, more is spent on homes, and this has been boosted by people moving house less frequently," says Verdict's Clive Vaughan.

Of course, when incomes slip it's the first area people cut back on. At least buying and selection skills are transferable.