Merchandising is arguably the most important department of a catalog/e-commerce/retail operation. If the product isn’t appropriate for the target audience, and it isn’t presented properly, and it doesn’t get to the warehouse on time, and the vendors aren’t reliable, and the quality isn’t up to par, then all the other departments will fail at their tasks. The efficiency and effectiveness of the merchandising department is critical for the health of the company overall. With the right team in place, you can increase your chances of product home runs and minimize the occurrence of merchandise strikeouts.
First and foremost, the function of the merchandising department is to find, solicit, select, and develop products to be included in each campaign. Beyond this, it receives and tags samples, paginates each offering, interacts with vendors, finalizes pertinent product information, develops item packaging, evaluates and approves each phase of creative production, forecasts inventory, and analyzes performance results by product and category. Merchandising works closely with all other departments including marketing, accounting, inventory planning and purchasing, fulfillment, and customer service. It’s even sometimes necessary for merchants to put out fires with disgruntled customers.
THE STARTING LINEUP
Just as every player on a baseball team plays a specific position, a merchandising department has its own lineup. Depending on the size of the company, there is generally a merchandising director, a couple of buyers, a merchandising assistant or two, a sample person, and an analyst. If it’s a small catalog or a start-up, the buyer and the merchandise manager may be the same person; the assistant and the sample person may also be the same. Merchandising departments often have slim budgets, and with trade shows on weekends and many impossible creative deadlines, the merchants routinely burn themselves out, so it’s essential to have dependable support staff.
In building a strong department, every member of the team should have merchandising experience or inclination. This goes for the person unpacking boxes as well as the assistants and the buyers, and of course the merchandise manager. If you’re creating a department from scratch, look inside the organization for potential personnel. Sometimes call centers and warehouses temporarily employ out-of-work artists, teachers, or shopkeepers; with the right direction and guidance, these workers can be groomed to be creative merchants. Local colleges and arts schools usually look for intern programs to recommend to their students — these can be a gold mine for talent. But you should have grace or trial periods to evaluate the potential of these workers in order to avoid costly personnel mistakes down the road.
A good merchant is a good merchant, no matter the channel, but there are several differences between brick-and-mortar merchandising and direct merchandising. First, catalog and Internet shoppers don’t have to (or get to) touch their purchases ahead of time; they are happy with a photograph and a good description, and they love the convenience of shopping remotely. Second, direct marketing is an item business, meaning the product is individually unique; it can stand on its own with no support from a line or a collection of other pieces. Third, while a store can remove an out-of-stock item from the floor, a cataloger potentially loses money if items in print are unavailable before the catalog expiration date.
A seasoned merchandise manager is key to a successful team. Not only should this person bring a breadth of experience to the department and the company, but he should also have some healthy management talents to draw on. It’s important that the merchandise manager be able to inspire the merchants and guide them in their selections and their direction to develop the brand, while representing the department to marketing and upper management. He must be familiar with the market and the product sourcing and selection procedures, he should have a bank of vendors to draw on, and he should know the mail order process, item classics and trends, product development, the creative process and scheduling, marketing analysis, purchasing and forecasting parameters, and fulfillment requirements. The manager needs strong communication skills, an even disposition, and it helps to be able to handle most any situation under intense pressure.
SCOUNTING FOR TALENT
A good merchant knows how to pick product, but finding one who can select appropriate goods for your business can be tricky. Do the merchants have “an eye” for salable product, and are they able to cultivate responsible and productive supplier relationships? Are they adept at separating their personal feelings about product from their professional? Do they know their product? No item should be considered for inclusion in an upcoming campaign if the merchant doesn’t know its benefits, price, and perceived value, not to mention delivery status. It can be time-consuming and ultimately expensive to get as far as a catalog presentation meeting and not have necessary and fundamental product information for the copywriter, the art director, or the photographer. The warehouse and customer service personnel also depend on the merchandising department for crucial product data.
Merchants should have a working knowledge of the analytical data required and used by other departments and whatever analysis is necessary to make responsible selection decisions. In recent years, upper management has typically expected merchants to be analysts as well as creative visionaries. It’s rare to find a merchant who has strength in both. In fact, it’s more difficult to find and maintain true merchants than analysts, so ideally the two jobs should remain separate.
That said, analysts are important players on the merchandising team, and it behooves the merchandising staff to cultivate relationships with them. Analysts are instrumental in adding and expanding categories, in recommending the tenure of a product, and in evaluating successes and failures of individual merchandise campaigns, product placement and exposure, and sales-to-space ratios. It is imperative the merchandising and creative departments have post mortems after a campaign is three or four weeks old. The analysis is critical in planning for future promotions, and it’s extremely valuable in the growth and development of merchants and their staffs.
Catalogers today are increasingly under pressure to expand categories, to reduce inventory, to increase fill rates, and to cut operating costs while building the response rate and/or average order and growing the customer list. Since all of these demands are affected by the sales of product and the vendors’ cooperation, it’s critical that the merchants know and understand the customer first and foremost. The marketing and merchandising departments need to communicate regularly on the development and evolution of the target audience. Knowing the customers’ habits, values, and pricing boundaries can only improve the chances of buyers’ finding the optimal merchandise.
THE RULES OF THE GAME
Because of the excessive demands made on the merchants and the merchandising department, organization and order are essential. And since searching for and soliciting products months in advance of publication is hardly unusual, it’s easy for paperwork to fall through the cracks if they’re not acted on right away. All vendor correspondence — packing slips, wholesale catalogs, handwritten notes, copies of e-mail messages — should be placed in individual vendor files. These should be centrally located so that every member of the department (and even others in the company) can access them when necessary. Update these files a few times a year; evaluate and make a decision regarding any items in question, and discard any products that are no longer contenders. Outdated vendor catalogs and information take up valuable space, which is usually at a premium.
Merchandising support staff is critical to the organization and multitasking of the department. While you want employees who like and relate to “things,” it’s also important to have a sample person and an assistant who are neat and organized. The sample person receives samples and tags them with vendor name and number, price, and date received. He keeps up with packing slips and sample invoices and groups items according to the merchants’ direction — this can be by category, vendor, price, or season. He should be articulate enough to communicate with vendors if information is missing or incorrect or if damaged samples are received. This employee should take pride in the overall disposition of the sample room and work closely with the merchants when they’re paginating and merchandising upcoming campaigns.
The merchandising assistant is the right hand of the merchants. He follows up on notes after trade shows attended by merchants, runs down samples that may have been ordered but never shipped, and orders samples at the request of merchants. He needs to develop a rapport with vendors, as he is often the only contact they have with the company once the merchant has left their booth at a show. The assistant generates and monitors vendor merchandise information packets. He also helps merchants merchandise and paginate books and works closely with the creative trafficking person to ensure a smooth merchandising and creative transition.
When interviewing potential assistants, it doesn’t hurt to mention that the position is a great place to start if they’re considering a merchandising career or simply exploring unique opportunities. If they’re open to entry-level salaries, flexibility of responsibilities, and some exhausting nights and weekends, they’ll learn a lot in a short period of time. Since this is a potential proving ground for future merchants, it’s important to educate, encourage, and respect your assistants.
Overall, you need to be sure you have the staff that can best carry out the mission of the company. Is the company’s brand successfully represented through the product offering? Are the integrity, the authority, and the personality of the company apparent with each item of the catalog or Website presentation? Does the merchandising staff have the vision to constantly expand and update the merchandise mix? No matter how long the hours or how intense the pressures, merchants need a passion that inspires them and motivates them to keep seeking a better product or a better way of showcasing it or a more profitable approach to merchandising the campaign.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of poorly merchandised catalogs on the market today, mostly because management won’t allow the merchants to be creative. But if the merchandising department becomes too much like a factory, your customers will notice and likely lose interest in your products. Once this happens, there’s no way for you to win the game.
Leila T. Griffith is a catalog merchandising consultant based in Jacksonville, FL.
The glamorous life?
Because merchants travel to “exotic” places and shop for a living, others in the company often consider their jobs glamorous. Never mind that trade shows always start on the weekends and that it’s not unusual to walk without sitting from 8:30 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. and to miss lunch and carry bags that weigh 10 lbs. by day’s end. There’s also all that time spent in airports, which are no longer fun or secure, and then there are the hotels and restaurant food three times a day and time away from loved ones. Back at the ranch, though, the grass outside the office always seems greener. Some workers in other departments may be jealous of the merchants or view the entire department as haughty, aloof, and elitist. You don’t want this, as other departments must interact with merchandising personnel, whether it’s making suggestions for photography props or approving copy or going over purchasing or attending budget meetings. Make sure you foster positive relationships between your merchants and personnel in other key areas of the business so that all workers truly feel that they’re playing for the same team.