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Visual merchandising: 'When a new range is doing well, it is a personal achievement'

We all know the power that a well-designed shop window can hold over us; in one glance, you can be transported into a different world. Behind the glass, the season's "must-buy" products come alive through a visual story that compels you to enter the store and part with your cash.

It's visual merchandisers who decide how a store and its products are presented, covering everything from designing and creating layouts and window displays to ensuring a consistent visual style in-store that maximises sales.

A mix of creative flair and commercial awareness is vital, but the role also requires excellent teamworking and communication skills, because promoting new stock and managing brand standards requires regular liaison with other departments.

Make no mistake, this is not just about dressing mannequins. It requires intelligence, creativity and the innovative use of themes, props, light, music and colour to establish an environment that triggers the impulse to buy. At the heart of visual merchandising is the fact that consumers want to be entertained, and demand inspiration and excitement as part of their shopping experience. Retailers who achieve this are rewarded with loyal customers and better-performing stores. Those that get it wrong invariably lose out.

Skillsmart Retail runs a national competition, skillVM, which gives the UK's professional and student visual merchandisers the chance to shine on a national stage. Winners may showcase their talents at EuroSkills and take part in WorldSkills, the largest international skills competition in the world, to be held in London in 2011. For more information on skillVM, visit skillvm.com.


Kris Donnelly, 24, worked as a visual merchandiser for the retailer All Saints before entering the Big Brother house. We caught up with him to talk shopping, visual merchandising and starting up his own boutique.

Do you think people realise how diverse retail careers can be?

No, and it's annoying when people say "I'll just have to get a job in a shop", as though it's a last resort. It's not an easy option. It is a fantastic career path in itself. People need to realise that, rather than think they'll do it until something better comes along.

How did you get into retail?

After school, I went to a football academy, which is every lad's dream, but I loved shopping more. At weekends, I'd travel up to Manchester to walk around the stores. I was offered a job in Next at 17 and loved it. I didn't know much about the industry then and I probably only took it because of the girls who worked there and the banter with the rest of the staff.

Do you have any retail qualifications?

I studied design management for fashion retailing at Manchester University. I also worked weekends at USC and used the time to top-up my experience on the sales floor.

What was your first visual merchandising job?

I was modelling in New Zealand and got to see how things worked backstage in visual merchandising – the creative, fashion and styling side – and thought: "That's what I want to do when I get home." I was lucky to get an opportunity to work for All Saints in Ibiza for six months and, because it was such a small store, I was hands-on with the visual merchandising. We had colour-coding rules and certain images we needed to use, but there were no directors out there, so I had free rein. Whatever I thought was good, I could just go for it and be really creative.

What was your job before going in to the Big Brother house?

Visual merchandising at All Saints in Manchester. When head office visited Ibiza, they were really impressed, especially as we had no director, and they offered me a role. So I flew back from Ibiza just for the interview because I wanted it so bad.

What did you enjoy about it?

Everything. Some nights, I'd go home and couldn't sleep because I was working out in my head where I could place new items coming in. It would drive me mad! I'd lie there thinking: "Maybe I can put that top with that." I'd get a real sense of achievement when someone came in and said that the store looks brilliant. The main thing about visual merchandising is maximising the sales, so when you hear that the new range is doing brilliantly, I took it as a personal achievement, because I'd helped that happen.

What would an average day involve?

First up would be a daily floor walk with the managers. I'd take their feedback on what areas are working well or where sales aren't as good as they could be. We'd come up with fresh ideas and themes for products, but also tried to monitor standards. With loads of students and part-timers working a few hours a week in a big city such as Manchester, making sure people were motivated and standards kept high were really important. So, I'd do a team talk once a week to get people on board and explain the look and feel of the store, mapping out the visual style and presentation. I worked to create the perfect store, designed to maximise sales and give a fantastic shopper experience.

Why is skillVM, the national visual merchandising competition, such a good idea?

People are bound to be more motivated through a competition like this and it'll impact positively on their work. By bringing the country's talent together, it not only gives the industry a platform but makes visual merchandising more focused and encourages new ideas. We need to get more hype behind the industry, and the students and professionals battling it out will benefit from having a goal and getting the recognition they deserve.

After a whirlwind year, are you keen to get back into retail?

I'd love to. A lot of people who went into the Big Brother house thought they were going to come out rock stars, but I knew that, whatever I did afterwards, it would be retail-based.

What sort of thing?

I have designs on setting up a fashion boutique at some stage, but right now I'm in talks with All Saints about doing some visual merchandising work with them again. My real passion, though, is to get the message across to kids coming out of school now. So many of them don't get how great retail is as a career, and I'd love to change their opinions.

For more information on careers in retail, visit skillsmartretail.com