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Visual Merchandisers: Retail's Silent Salespeople

Visual Merchandisers: Retail's Silent Salespeople

Walk into any retail store, and you'll notice that someone has spent a substantial amount of time, energy and often money to make everything look just right -- starting with the store's outer display windows -- so that you, the customer, will be more apt to go into buying mode.

That someone is a visual merchandiser, whose job is ultimately to boost sales, not by talking to you in person or writing an ad, but by making a store's products look so appealing that they're irresistible to you and your credit card. "Visual merchandising is a very important tool for selling," says Brandy Bailey, a visual comanager for women's apparel retailer Bebe in Chicago, who previously worked in the same position for Guess.

"It starts with the windows," Bailey says. "The windows are the first thing the customer sees when deciding if they want to enter the store. They reflect the store's image and showcase the newest products that it offers. Then all the interior displays and in-store merchandising come next to appeal to the customer."

What It Takes

The job calls for creativity, not to mention solid knowledge of design concepts and theatrical principles like color, lighting and staging. But you'll need more than vision and imagination to succeed in the world of visual merchandising. These two competencies are also essential:

  • Outstanding People Skills: "Aside from making great displays, you must be able to take direction and criticism from every manager and buyer as well as be willing to change your vision based on what your boss wants to see," says Mindy Miles Greenberg, an independent visual merchandiser in New York City who has worked with such clients as Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Benjamin Moore.

    "Many times that will mean climbing a ladder -- again -- or dragging a prop up a flight of stairs or redoing something that took you two days to do, because you're asked to change it," says Greenberg. "And don't be surprised if on the following week, you're asked to change it back to the way you had it -- again!"

    If you can't effectively deal with human politics, especially at upper levels, you may struggle as a visual merchandiser, says Carla Michaels, a Los Angeles-based visual merchandiser affiliated with Macy's, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, May Department Stores and Timberland.

    "Unfortunately, those new to visual merchandising have colorful ideas about the amount of creativity needed," she says. "When working as part of a team or leading one, a good visual merchandiser should be able to choose projects to express themselves creatively without troubling the management."

  • Analytical Ability: "You have to be analytical and be able to read reports that the company may send to see what's selling and what's not, and then be able to merchandise according to that," says Bailey. "You also need a plan B for everything you merchandise in case you sell out or it's not selling like it should."

    The job also involves reading shoppers' minds, which is quite a feat considering the wide variety of customers who come through your store. It's critical "to merchandise and accessorize a store to really make sense to the customer," Bailey says.

Job Growth and Pay

If you succeed, you'll be playing a role in boosting the store's revenues. As for your own compensation, the median salary for a visual merchandiser is $34,100, according to online salary database PayScale.com. "Management, freelancers and coordinators have much more responsibility, and the money follows," Michaels says.

"Be patient, and remember that a visual merchandiser is very valuable in retail environments," she adds. "At times, pursuing visual merchandising as a trade can be tiresome. But when you land the gig of your dreams, it's worth it."

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