Jennifer Wallace gets to play with toys and think like a kid on most days. But it’s hard work.
As the Associate Category Manager for crafts and seasonal products at one of Canada’s largest “big box” retailers, the Schulich BBA grad is responsible for selecting the jewelry kits, pool toys, Play-Doh colours and bubble kits (just to name a few) that the store puts on its shelves in the toy department.
She was hired in 2011 into a year-long rotational program that gives recent graduates the opportunity to sample different departments and roles.
Nine months after beginning the program, Jennifer started full-time in her current role. “I knew at that point that merchandising was where I wanted to be,” she says.
A day in the life of an Associate Category Manager
Jennifer tests crafts and seasonal product samples from vendors and picks the ones she wants to sell in stores.
She’s responsible for forecasting how much of each product to buy, what the projected sales are and how much profit the company can expect to earn. She also makes decisions on how her products are advertised and promoted.
“I’m constantly being challenged,” she says. “One of the best parts of my job is that it’s always changing.”
Jennifer uses three words to describe an average day: sales, email and planning.
She always begins by reviewing sales from the previous day to analyze what’s working and what isn’t in her categories. Then, she tackles her inbox by sorting and responding to emails. Jennifer spends a lot of her time communicating to and meeting with vendors to discuss things like new items, current sales trends and long-term strategic planning.
“Building a good relationship with my vendors is key,” she says. “Not only do I rely on them for day-to-day business, but I also want to be their first thought for product launches.”
Career path from cashier to summer intern
She began working as a cashier with a different retailer when she was 16 and, over four years, worked in a number of different departments, including customer service, housewares, hardware and promotions. Today, she often uses what she learned on the sales floor to make decisions at the office.
Her experience and dedication helped her land an internship at that company’s head office during the summer between first and second year. She worked as a Milestone Tracking Coordinator in the retail promotional planning team. In this role, she prepared reports for senior management that tracked major deadlines for all line review and seasonal deals.
“I didn’t realize at the time how much this first internship would influence my career path,” Jennifer says. “I had never considered working in retail beyond high school until then.”
Two summers later, she returned as a Marketing Co-ordinator for the patio furniture and lawn team. “It gave me first-hand experience on how products are developed, merchandised, advertised and sold in store.”
How she stood out during the job interview process
When Jennifer knew that she wanted to work for a retailer, she chose a second specialization in addition to marketing: accounting. “I quickly realized that in retail, the financials are just as important as your ability to sell a product,” she says.
And she thinks anyone who aspires to work in retail should do the same. “The majority of my day is [spent] working with numbers and my job is a lot easier thanks to the accounting and finance classes I took in university.”
Academic excellence, a passion for retail, on-the-job experience and her transparency are what set her apart during the hiring process. “Often people put on a persona that they cannot sustain once [they’re] in the role,” she says. “It’s important for the company to get to know me from the get go.”
Career tips for aspiring Category Managers
Interview the retailer
You can become obsessed about just finding a job during recruiting season instead of finding the right job for you. Understanding the retailer’s corporate culture can help you ace your interview and figure out if you’d actually like working there.
Take a Microsoft Excel course
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the numbers. Knowing how to use the shortcuts and functions in Excel can save you time and help you make better decisions.
Get involved at school
Joining a student-run club or organization can help you develop the leadership and intrapersonal skills that will make you a better student, candidate and person.
Learn about retailing by going to big-box stores, boutique shops and restaurants. Pay attention to things like their store layouts, promotional material and product selection on your next shopping trip.
“Pinterest is a great platform for people who are passionate about products and retail,” Jennifer says. Pins can help a retailer discover the latest trends and key consumer insights.
Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik