Inside the merchant’s toolbox

Every company seems to be cutting back — on budgets, staffing, travel. While we’re all trying to do more with less, the workload remains the same for merchants: Brands need products.

What is a “budgetista merchant” to do? Here are nine practical tools you can use this year without breaking the bank:


    First off, be sure you know what business you are really in. A merchant is not just selling on-trend and brand-building products, it is selling something bigger.

    Sundance is selling more than artist-inspired jewelry, clothing and home decor merchandise. Founder Robert Redford reminds his customers of this on his homepage: “What we offer in the form of art and culture, spirit and service, is homegrown and available to all.”

    Fairytale Brownies is not just selling delicious brownies; it is selling “pure enchantment” and “making the world a sweeter place.”

    Before you create and offer more products or services, be sure you truly understand what all those products you are creating, sourcing and selling are really about. This mission becomes your brand’s “true north” compass guiding you in all you do.


    What seven words best describe your brand? What adjectives would your customers use to describe your brand?

    Now compile those two lists and see if they synch up. Is your brand perception the same internally as well as externally?

    Next, take those words and write definitions for them for your brand. Document this!

    I once worked with a company that perceived its brand as “homey.” Some merchants clearly thought “homey” meant “cozy” and “down-to-earth,” while others surprised us and thought “homey” meant “Martha Stewart” and “sophisticated.”

    We had to spend some time on the word “homey” until we had a definition that articulated this brand’s perspective on “homey.” Most times, the adjectives that describe your brand will also describe your products.


    Take some “stop-and-think” time. Turn off the cells and Blackberries and let all that is urgent on your desk and laptop wait a bit. Gather your best internal business brains in one room and just talk about your products.

    Invite all the merchants, but include others connected to your products as well — creative folks, customer care reps, marketing and accountant types. They each “touch” the product line in their own way. Their perspectives are important.

    Take time for a real and in-depth conversation about your products. Actively listen to the insights and theories behind what’s working and what’s not.


    If your company boasts collective brilliance inhouse, just imagine what exists outside your four walls! In a perfect world, merchants would hang out with customers on a daily basis, and in this casual mingling would discuss all sorts of product-related issues. And customers would be in the office meeting room when big merchandising decisions were being made.

    Since these scenarios are often not possible, merchants need to create their own “on call” (or e-mail) board of customer advisers. This representative sampling of real customers and users of the brand’s products is instrumental in being a true sounding board for help on issues like pricing, color selections, fabrications, etc. These customer conversations can provide merchants with authentic “emotional intelligence” about product decisions.


    Sometimes things just go your way. During the summer Olympics, women’s clothier Chico’s received a sprinkling of merchandising fairy dust: Debbie Phelps, mom of eight-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, was televised wearing Chico’s outfits event after event as she cheered her son to victory.

    Chico’s received Ms. Phelps’ permission to showcase her selections on its Website that week. Soon after, the retailer offered her an endorsement.

    Why? Debbie Phelps, a 57-year-old, successful school principal, epitomized the Chico’s customer. I have no doubt, the merchants at Chico’s call its customer Debbie.

    The merchants at Appleseed’s, another clothing company targeting a similar baby-boomer female, call its customer Kate. While Kate is not an Olympic mom, she is a composite picture of the Appleseed’s customer created after the team conducted qualitative and quantitative research.

    You must have a thorough visual and word picture of each of your customer segments. When you continually “picture” your customer in all that you do, your brand starts to make decisions through his or her lens. What would Debbie think about this tote? What would Kate wear this spring season?


    Many companies generate stacks and stacks of reports (or spreadsheets upon spreadsheets) of product metrics and status reports. Oftentimes, these analytics are underused, scanned quickly or forgotten altogether. I find that creating product rock star boards helps turn a plethora of numbers into interesting stories.

    Boston Proper, a women’s apparel company, did just that. While creating product visual boards was always a part of its thorough review process, the merchandising department took it a step further. The merchants looked at the top performing products across three key metrics and created a visual board we named “product rock stars.”

    These products sold lots of units, brought in revenue, were brand enhancers and contributed meaningfully to the bottom line. These products will drive line extensions and potential category development. Do you know which products are your rock stars?


    After clarifying both your brand’s “true north” (some call it your unique selling proposition or USP) and your brand adjectives, it is time to create a product fit chart using those adjectives and other descriptors (price point ranges, functionality, themes, etc.) that will become your merchandising GPS.

    This is a truly effective planning tool that instills product objectivity in choosing products. No longer is the “merchant’s favorite” or the “vendors’ great deal” the only criterion for decision-making.

  1. The fit chart enables the product selection process to become a more strategic and systematic vetting plan for the whole department. It generates excellent conversations amongst merchants and it guides the team to make brand-enhancing decisions vs. brand-detracting ones.


    Every brand has its Goliath. What competitor would you like to slay?

    Knowledge is power, so spend time reviewing your competitors’ products first through your own fit chart. How many of “theirs” do you carry? Why?

    Are you “borrowing” their true north? Are they borrowing yours? How much customer confusion are you generating? (Take a look at some cooking brands or office supply brands — there’s very little differentiation.)

    Next, try to create your competitors fit charts. Not only will your merchants gain greater insights into their “Goliaths,” but this tool will also help in your own product vetting process.

    Keep the competitors’ fit charts as a handy sidebar reference to your own as you struggle with certain product selections. And be sure the products you select are yours to do, not your competitors!


    Last year, The New Yorker published an article called “The Checklist” with the subhead “If something so simple can transform intensive care, what else can it do?” The story described how a doctor and his colleagues studied the measured practices of pilots and implemented simple checklists to prevent intensive care infections.

The checklists worked: Lives were saved, and infection rates were down dramatically. What seemed silly at first actually helped establish a higher standard of performance.

I like to use checklists both when creating, sourcing and selecting products, and then again when selling those products across multichannels. Like the product fit chart, a “selling” checklist can be implemented by the merchants, but then shared with the creative team.

The selling checklist can be a practical barometer for double and triple checking that everything has been done to ensure that product (category, theme) sells as well as possible. Why bother investing in product development if the same energy isn’t given to make that product enticing on-page, in-store or online?

2009 promises to be a challenging year. Face those challenges squarely and confidently with the use of these strategic merchandising tools. Advertising executive Bruce Barton believed that “The big rewards come to those who travel the second, undemanded mile.”

I agree. Happy traveling!

Andrea Syverson ( is president of IER Partners, a consulting company specializing in brand and merchandising transformations.

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