Working for a retailer doesn’t only mean folding clothes and ringing sales up at the register.
Imagine this: A flight to Paris. A seat with your name on it next to the runway. Models, designers and celebrities.
Then, next week, you’re back at the office sharing samples with the PR department, creating a trend forecast book for merchandise buyers and spreading the word to every location in Canada.
Starting your retail career a sales associate allows you to “really understand the culture, the clientele, all the different brands and seasons and cycles.” —Morgan Harlocker, Assistant to the VP of Fashion Direction, Holt Renfrew
Welcome to the fashion department. Here, trusted corporate structures and targeted merchandising meets the fashion world’s glitz and glamour.
“A lot of people perceive the business to be what they see in a shopping mall,” says Judy Cameron, Co-ordinator of Seneca College’s Fashion Business and Fashion Business Management programs.
But retailers also offer meaningful positions for fashion lovers within their different departments, all of which serve the success of their stores.
Morgan Harlocker, Assistant to the Vice-President of Fashion Direction at Holt Renfrew, says, “Ultimately, the corporate side works so the store works.”
These are a few of the important departments found on the corporate side of most fashion retailers:
- Merchandise management: made up of “buyers” who purchase product for the store
- Brand management: deals with the store’s publicity and marketing (events, communications)
- Product development: often found at private-label retailers (Gap, Club Monaco, etc.), this department works directly with the concept and creation of a collection, then seeks out a manufacturer to produce it
Working from the (sales) floor up
You might shudder at the thought of hawking jeans and fetching shoe sizes, but the selling floor is the foundation of the retail business. Instead, think of it as a first step towards your career.
Retailers usually seek sales floor experience before anything else. “They think that to go on to progressive and related careers in head office, [you] need to understand the basics of the business,” says Cameron.
When Harlocker began connecting with people of influence within Holt Renfrew, she was initially dismissive about working on the sales floor.
But she says now that it’s actually an invaluable experience because it allows you to “really understand the culture, the clientele, all the different brands and seasons and cycles.”
She started as a personal shopping assistant and took advantage of the unique environment. She shopped from the entire store, got to know the products and had fun doing head-to-toe styling.
From there, Harlocker started networking. She contacted people she respected and wanted to work for, held informational interviews and applied for some assistant buyer roles. By speaking to many different people, her current boss heard she was looking to make a move and eventually hired her.
Selling yourself: Education, experience and career development
You’ve got a keen eye on fashion and the industry. You’ve got sales floor experience. But what about your seemingly unrelated post-secondary education?
You still may be a good fit. Harlocker says the best education for a buyer would be a business degree, but marketing and PR skills can be put to good use in those departments as well. There are also plenty of ways to make up for a lack of education and experience: working storefront, doing internships or even taking night classes in, say, retail math.
Informational interviews are particularly useful. “It’s a good thing to make [your goals and ambitions] known….and that you’re not just sitting around waiting to be put into that job. You’re asking, ‘What can I do to improve my current qualifications so that you will want me on your team?’” says Harlocker.
Retailers themselves are also usually great with on-the-job training. “They’re interested in the career development of their people,” says Cameron.
“There are lots of Canadian companies that offer terrific training and development for full time staff. Lululemon (head office in Vancouver) and Hbc (head office in Brampton) are two that come to mind,” as retailing is increasingly being seen as a profession, rather than a “job between jobs.”