Why Merchandising is a People Business
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
Great product and design are critical to a brand’s success. But, in my two decades of working with retailers and brands, I have consistently seen that addressing this one factor, before tackling design, drives the best results - and that is, a focus on people - their tastes and personalities. I call it reverse merchandising, or people-first merchandising.
I was fortunate to have a humbling moment early in my career, where this concept came to light while managing a dress department in a large retail store. The memory of this day has remained a constant reminder to me. I was approached by two seemingly frustrated customers one day, who asked me, while waving their arms as if to emphasize how big the department was, "Where are all the soft dresses?!" I learned that they were visiting New York from Europe, and I noted that it was a fair and simple question. As I looked around, my twenty-two-year-old eyes saw the department in a new way, this time from their eyes. We had literally hundreds of dress options and all were either tailored, structured, or knit, but did not have a single "soft" dress to offer them. In that moment, it became obvious to me that there was an entire group of people we were not addressing.
The newbie dress buyer later explained to me that her “buy” was representative of all the collections that the dress brands had to offer. Knowing what I know now, I can imagine how that store assortment may have come to be. The brands started their line development process with a concept meeting, showing slides of the runway trends. Other team members presented a 'hindsight" about the current season and maybe some intel about the competition. Then line was designed and developed based on runway trends, other inspiration, and the current data. That particular retail buyer assorted and bought from the brands in her vendor matrix and did not question what they offered. The result was a department that was financially down-trending because it appealed to only two types of people - the fashionista who followed current trends, and the professional who wore tailored looks. The buyer and I both learned a valuable lesson that I have never forgotten.
In my 20+ years in merchandising, I have seen brands achieve the most success when we start the line planning process by thoughtfully asking and answering people-first questions, and doing this every season - before tackling product. Questions like “Who are we appealing to? What personalities and attitudes are we appealing to? Who else should we be appealing to? What do they want? What are we missing that they want?”. Fortunately, the internet and its data has made it so much easier for us to get answers today versus twenty years ago, if we keep a pulse on things like consumer demand trends and most-searched-for items. But we still need to ask the right questions if we want to answer, “what can we predict that they might want tomorrow?”, which is another way way of asking, “what are they not searching for yet, but will be?”
Much like the European women who were looking for something different, there are always people of varying styles and personalities. Some people would never wear a high-waisted pant or cropped top, and others always prefer to dress on the softer side. After all, not all trends fit every personality type. Back then, when the dress buyer changed that assortment to appeal to more diverse tastes and personalities, the business trend did reverse. While today's answer about people's current desires might be found in “most-searched-for" items, clues about their future demand, or even missed opportunities in general, may be hidden in the comments or reviews. The goal of “reverse merchandising” is to truly seek out what people are saying, and look for diverse perspectives, i.e. focus on people first, then product.