Merchandisers are the brains behind the shop floor but what exactly do they do?

Are you the sort of person who gets annoyed when you walk into your favourite shop and find out that things have changed? Or does the rejig on the sales floor automatically arouse your interest, prompting your own opinions about the choices made to introduce a new mix of products for the buying public? If you fall into the second category, you might be a merchandiser in the making.

The word "merchandising" has echoes that ring down the centuries, and reminds us, among other things, of Shakespeare's Venetian merchant, trading goods from far off lands in a strange currency called the ducat. But the basic disciplines of merchandising have endured, and are as relevant in the 21st-century retail environment as they were in the Bard's day.

"Merchandisers are responsible for ensuring that products appear in the right store at the right time and in the right quantities," reads the succinct description of the role on Prospects, the graduate careers website ( www. prospects.ac.uk).

Every retail operation in the country has merchandisers, working closely with the buying teams, trying to forecast trends, plan stock levels and monitor how fast, or slow, the stuff is disappearing from the shelves. They oversee deliveries and deal with suppliers. These are the people who've been working extra hard over the last 12 months, as high-street stores up and down the country have been slashing prices and concocting clever promotions to try to make the best of the recession.

"It's a key function for us," says Linda Summerell from the HR department of the Arcadia Group, which houses Burton, Topshop and Miss Selfridge. "The merchandisers work very closely with the buying and distribution teams."

The first rung on the merchandising ladder at Arcadia is called merchandise administrative assistant, of whom there are about 100 in the group, all head-office roles, mainly graduate recruits.

"We look for graduates who have studied analytical or business-type degrees," explains Summerell, "because the nature of the role is analysing sales figures and forecasting trends, so that we keep one step ahead to make sure profits are maximised."

And it's important to understand the distinction between the merchandising role and the more creative, design, and fashion-orientated position of the buyer. "It's the graduates who've studied fashion-related degrees that tend to swing towards the buying role," says Summerell.

At Marks & Spencer, a similar importance is allocated to the position of merchandising. "We couldn't function as a retail entity without people in merchandising roles," says Kay Jones-Wolsey, head of recruitment. The merchandiser, she adds, is the analytic one of the key trio of designer, buyer and merchandiser.

"Right now, an M&S merchandiser somewhere could be looking at what stock we have sitting with our suppliers and the rate of sale of that stock at our stores. They would then start making decisions around a particular line, depending on whether figures were healthy or unhealthy, to remedy the situation."

Among its annual intake of up to 200 graduates, M&S places a small proportion in merchandising roles, in the same way as graduates go straight into design, food technology and IT positions at head office. "This is where they learn the ropes," says Jones-Wolsey, and start out on a career structure within the merchandising function, which goes all the way to head of merchandising."

As far as employment prospects for merchandising are concerned at the moment, the retailing sector as a whole is far from depressed, says Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects.

"Some people have been having a tremendous recession, for example Aldi and Asda," he says. "And Sainsbury's and Tesco are very buoyant as well. However, they are inundated with high-quality applicants who, in the past, might have applied for other roles, so they're not doing as much recruiting."

That said, there are still arguments for aiming at a career in merchandising. "There's a chronic shortage of merchandisers," says Helen Armour, who runs the BA fashion merchandise management degree course at the University of Westminster. She joined the university two years ago after more than a decade in merchandising roles for some of the biggest names on the high street, including Burton, Harvey Nichols, Mothercare and TK Maxx.

The Westminster course, four years full time with an industry placement in the third year, boasts an impressive record for placing graduates in jobs. In recent years, from an annual pool of around 40 graduates, 90 per cent have landed jobs in the retail sector within a few months of finishing the course.

And the demand doesn't seem to be declining, if Armour's industry contacts are anything to go by.

"In the last two days, I've been contacted by two companies who want me to get my final-year students to apply for merchandising vacancies," she says.

"And that underlines the point that in tough times – even more than good times – it's important to have good merchandisers," she concludes.

'I was interested in how the shoes got on to the shelves'

Kathryn Mallery, 27, is the merchandiser for maternity and petite clothing for the online fashion retailer ASOS.com, having completed the BA fashion merchandise management degree at the University of Westminster in 2003.

"When I was in the sixth form, I worked in a shoe shop and was quite interested in how the shoes got on to the shelves, but I didn't know then that it was called merchandising.

When I chose a university course, I wanted something that combined my interest in business studies with that interest in how things get on to shelves. I found the course at the University of Westminster, which was exactly what I was looking for.

After graduating, I worked for a year at Tesco head office in Welwyn Garden City, and then went to Habitat for four years.

After the relatively slow pace of homeware, I wanted a new challenge and decided to move into the deep end of fast-moving fashion, so I moved to ASOS.com. Women's fashion is fast, and online is the fastest of the fast. It's very media-driven because people see celebrities wearing things and they want them 'now'. We have to make sure we're the first to make the latest trends available and give the customers what they want.

In my job, there's a lot of number crunching. I find it so logical, though. If something is doing well, you get more of it; if it's not doing so well, you learn from it for the future and manage the stock the best you can. Logistics are a big part of the job and I visit our warehouse in Hertfordshire once a quarter, to make sure things are running as smoothly as possible.

I absolutely love the job. It's really rewarding coming in on a Monday morning, looking at the figures for the previous week and seeing what your efforts produced."

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