How To Think More Like A Merchant

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By Valerie Singer


Valerie Singer has over 13 years of experience in driving sales and profit for high street fashion retailers through customer focussed ranges, on-brand strategic planning and robust trading and stock management. Here, she shares with you some top tips on merchant-thinking to help you grow your business.


bwsAs a fashion merchandiser, endlessly analysing commercial data, forecasting sales and managing stock, I might be expected to treat successful retailing as a science. From my seasons in the high street I am here to tell you that it is far more of an art.

You can draw different conclusions based on the same results and can influence figures to show the picture you want. Personal style, changing trade conditions and expectations mean that in retailing, what worked last week might not work this week, what you wanted yesterday, you might not want tomorrow. As clichéd as it sounds, the only constant in fashion is change.

In light of this shifting reality, how do you manage to drive consistent success? In retail we are always judging trade based on yesterday’s sales, last week is old news by Tuesday. The instant gratification of seeing your range sell or the heartbreak when it doesn’t is fleeting. True sustainable results are achieved over time. Retail is a long game.

They say the simplest answer is always the right one, I believe that. This is backed up by having worked through nearly 14 years at seven different retailers on two continents. I have read countless interviews with the leaders of successful retailers and there is incredible consistency in their focus. This focus can be summarised in one word: customer.

Put your customer first

Putting your customer at the heart of your decisions is the best place to start. It is tempting and often practiced to prioritise other areas, but this is dangerous. Of course, as someone who has spent her career focused on profit productivity I know that far more needs to be considered and managed. When distracted by other pressures on the business, particularly short term, however, those can lead you astray. It might sound like I’m over simplifying but putting your customer first is much harder than it sounds.

Knowing your customer in fashion is not that straightforward a proposition. Target age group and income bracket is not enough. Considering lead times, you need to know where they are going to be in 6-8 months’ time.

Customer-focused trend forecasting is key and drives forward strategies, helped by forecasting agencies, which are growing and getting more sophisticated. Historical patterns are also very useful, but they need to be carefully considered given how things change. (I’ve been wrong more than once when basing a decision solely on historical data).

The increasingly global reach of retailers of course adds incredible complexity to this, although I would argue a clear vision should translate across borders. There is also something to be said for knowing who your customer is, and who they want to be. But that is likely the domain of an aspirational marketing professional, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

Online retailing has completely changed the ability to understand your customer, and I do believe has made it easier. Google and internal business intelligence can now tell you not only who your customers are, but where they’ve come from, how often, what else they buy and what they are looking for. It adds an amazing dimension to all levels of planning and trade, but it is unclear if it will guarantee better results in the future. I wouldn’t think so. If anything becoming too reliant on the “now” might distract from the future, which is where you need to focus.

Commercial awareness

‘Commercial awareness’ is a term thrown around a lot in the fashion retail industry so much that it probably has become difficult to define. It is a concept that can be interpreted many ways but ultimately boils down to knowing what factors out in the market will impact your customer and business.

The most obvious one is keeping a close eye on your competitors. Staying aware of their offer, pricing, trading activity and branding will ensure you don’t lag behind, or better yet keep out in front. It shouldn’t, however, stop there.

Economic and political trends influencing consumer confidence and spending power are key. You can’t get away with ignoring financial headlines even if new tax breaks and VAT aren’t the most stimulating of news stories. Beyond that, social trends can change buying patterns and perceptions. These are trickier to track but could be something like the rise of Instragram and selfie culture. How will this affect how much clothing someone buys?

Consider what films are coming out and how much that can influence a wanted look or item. One of the things I’ve always loved about retailing is that is an incredible barometer for what is going on with popular culture, economic indicators and even public sentiment. Being able to be truly commercially aware is both challenging and stimulating and should ultimately come naturally to those whose passions cross over all of the above mentioned areas.

A good product offer

I have yet to mention what is the heart and soul of any retailer, fashion or not –Product. Your product offer ultimately dictates the level of success each season and thinking otherwise is foolish. I am a firm believer in this, of course, and it is the more tangible way to get to the bottom of your results, as easily analysed.

Whether it be trend, colour, pricing, category or fabrication, pinpointing the best and worst each season can be easily translated into strategic lessons. I do believe that a great range is fundamentally down to knowing your customer. A great range is the output of a clear customer vision at the start; they are critically linked.

As a merchandiser I could go on forever about the right category balance, price architecture, margin structure, sourcing plan and stock model, all ingredients to driving the best results. That would be, however, far too prescriptive and ultimately trying to break down what I believe to be an art into a science. If there was a simple numerical formula for fashion success, surely the high street would be a different place.

First published on Ethical Fashion Forum.

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