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The changing role of the merchandiser

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The role of the merchandiser sits at the heart of retail. In the future, development of this role will go hand in hand with technological advances.

Since the late 1980s, one of the key factors in the success story of speciality retailing has been the merchandiser. This role emerged in mainstream retail, driven by the desire to provide central control over a company’s stock range, its assortments and its relationships with its store network.

Rather than continuing with the assumption that this was the responsibility of the store manager – who simply requested what he or she thought was needed – medium-to-large retailers realised that it would be more efficient to centralise this function.

Essentially, this was a strategy driven by the availability of technology – namely the emergence of lower-cost mini-computers. The results were impressive, and included tangible reductions in employee costs, lower – and more optimised – stock holding, and a route to faster and more manageable store expansion.

For 30 years, the merchandiser has been key in shaping shopping centres around the country, driving “identikit” stores, and doing the best job possible to match demand with supply across branches and considering style, colour and size dimensions. However, while this role emerged as a result of more cost-effective and efficient technology, the same technology is now driving the role away from its original roots.

Technology has always driven retail processes and functions, and, over the last 15 years, it has changed the face of speciality retail. Online sales can now significantly outperform even the largest store in a chain. Customers have far greater expectations as to what stock they can buy, and how their orders can be fulfilled – whether by home delivery or click-and-collect. In addition, there have been exponential increases in both the type and amount of data that is available to retailers, relating to both store- and customer-based activities.

The role of the merchandiser is clearly moving away from its original process-driven focus on allocation and replenishment, governed by departmental-based store grading, to one that is essentially much more data-driven and analytical in nature.

In the future, merchandisers need to take account of both the type of customer who is buying the stock and what data is being captured from each store. For example, knowing the age and gender of customers entering the store can help to drive the mechandiser’sr assortment, allocation and replenishment decisions. In many ways, whether the allocation is exactly right or not is less important, as the industry is heading toward a fulfilment model that will gather stock from all locations and deliver it directly to the customer or to their preferred collection point.

Statistical forecast algorithms based on machine learning will assist the merchandiser, taking into account all this extra data, producing recommendations, and learning what suggestions the merchandiser accepts and rejects. In the future, the merchandising role is much more likely to be that of a data scientist who has an inherent understanding of the fashion industry they are working in.

to find out more about the future of merchandising.

Robin Coles, product and technology lead at HSO

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