Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 20 years, you know that retail is changing…FAST! To get some insight into how its changing I interviewed Chelsea Mendrala, creative director at Herman Parker and former retail merchandiser with Abercrombie & Fitch.
Chelsea shared her unique career story as a merchandiser and provides some great advice for anyone in retail. Check out the interview…
What was the career path that led your toward retail merchandising?
I graduated from The Ohio State University with BSBA in Finance and following graduation went on to work in inventory management at a global retail brand.
As an analyst, I was responsible for the allocation of merchandise at SKU and by-store levels from initial set thru markdown. I learned how to react to current trends, assortment updates, & end-of-life product strategies while partnering with planning, merchandising, and the visual merchandising teams. It was my exposure to the visual team during this time, which sparked the next step in my career.
Something that has always fascinated me about the visual merchandising field is the diverse backgrounds it brings together. An interest in fashion (understatement) connects more than just fashion merchandising majors. I worked with Poli-Sci, Biology, Accounting, English, Marketing, History, and Liberal Arts majors…just to name a few.
The common thread, of course, was a level of creativity and imagination that is truly unparalleled. To quote Steve Jobs, “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again — less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
What are the biggest challenges you faced as a merchandiser?
As a visual merchandiser, you have to wear many hats. The level of creativity and imagination that I mentioned has to be applied in so many different ways. There is a complexity to setting new items.
A visual merchandiser must weigh both item productivity and the look and feel of the store, understand what the key looks will be for the season, calculate the feasibility for actual implementation (cost, store hours, item ownership) and make sure the stores lighting and color is highlighted appropriately.
Every product category (shorts, dresses, fleece, graphics, jeans, etc.) wants to have the best placement for their items and they all depend on the visual merchandiser to do that. Now, weave in long hours and late nights, and don’t forget to streamline communication between stores, regional managers, buyers, inventory analysts, pricing, and eCommerce.
The biggest challenge is how to be the gatekeeper for the brand, be one step ahead of your competition, and do all of this without dropping any of your hats.
How has the eCommerce explosion affected what merchandisers do?
eCommerce has forced visual merchandisers, along with their cross functional partners, to really change the way they look at how their consumers shop.
Shopping behavior isn’t analyzed the same way in a brick and mortar store that it is online. All of the senses you try to engage when a customer comes in and walks around your store (being able to touch the merchandise, see what the associates are wearing, ask what products are new, smell the cologne, etc) now need to be translated online.
We have to hook you a lot faster, we have to be constantly changing, and we have to do all of that with fewer tools from our toolbox.
Think time spent “in a store” online versus “in a store” brick and mortar. The consumer can scroll infinitely faster through what you have to offer online versus a walk through your store. Online, we only have a few minutes, maybe seconds to catch you. In the past our merchandising tool kit revolved around all your senses. eCommerce changes all of that.
What does the word “omnichannel” mean to you?
To me, omnichannel means seamless. Rather than this online versus store scenario, we can now connect them all together.
Retail stores can be smaller, but still appeal to the shoppers who want the brick and mortar experience. We can offer more products to consumers without sending too much inventory to stores that we know will not turn it over. It allows us to be smarter with our displays and challenges us to streamline the ecommerce and the store experiences.
What are your predictions for the future of merchandising as a profession?
Visual merchandising is a field demands to be reckoned with. As technology changes and the retail climate changes, it becomes even more important (and even more challenging) to effect the bottom line, drive efficiencies, and adapt creative concepts.
Domestic companies continue to open in new markets and regions; and visual merchandisers help ensure they do so, while still holding true to their brand image.
Visual merchandising used to occur in a three dimensional space and rely on engaging all of your senses to maximize sales. The future really challenges that. It forces visual merchandisers to look beyond ‘what they’ve always done’ and ‘what they’ve always known.’
Any advice you’d like to provide up and coming merchandisers?
Being in a creative role such as visual merchandising requires a strong will. Everyone has a different opinion (what’s next, what’s over, what’s going to make or break the season, how do we present this merchandise to the customer?) and these are all very passionate people.
You have to do this job because you enjoy doing it. Someone very wise once told me, retail is a fluid environment. You’ve got to be able to go with the flow. There isn’t always a rhyme or reason to the changes that happen, but they are constant.
That being said, it is that level of ambiguity that really keeps this job interesting. There is not an “average day” and can’t think of a single day that I would describe as boring. It is challenging, it keeps you on your toes, but it is an extremely rewarding field.
About Chelsea Mendrala
Creative Director, Herman-Parker
After spending years in visual merchandising for a global retail brand, Chelsea broke away from the corporate grind. Fueled by her passion for creativity, she founded Herman Parker, a local, web design firm for small businesses. Chelsea is a recurring blogger in several diverse retail segments, ranging from visual merchandising to process improvement insights.
You can reach Chelsea at Herman-Parker.com or email@example.com.