UPDATE (3.19.12): I received an email from an actual visual merchandiser who works for Macy’s. She offers some insight on working there.
“…just a short comment about getting a visual job at Macy’s. I have worked in Macy’s visual for many, many years. Nowadays I would assume getting a visual position at Macy’s would be quite easy. Every display is plan-o-grammed. Pictures are sent to show how the display is rendered, even outfit descriptions. Windows are sent out now as window packets, so each Macy’s with windows will look the same. For me, as you could imagine, this is heartbreaking. All of the individual creativity is vanishing, but for newcomers it is all very easy. Look at the picture, take it out of the box, and install. The best assets for a visual manager are organizing skills, floor layout skills, and computer skills. Hope this give you a bit of insight!”
Thanks Julie for writing in, it’s great to get feedback from someone who is “in the field”.
[First published on 3.14.12]
This week in class the question came up on whether or not a portfolio was necessary when applying for a visual merchandising job. This also seems to be the question I get asked a lot by readers. Instead of trying to answer everyone back individually, I decided to post my answer to a recent email:
I came across your blog doing some background research on Visual Merchandising and was overjoyed by the insight you provided.
A little background, I’m a 25-year-old post grad with a degree in Communications but I was hired as a seasonal Brand Specialist for Calvin Klein than after Xmas I have been working as a part-time Merchandiser. I work at a very large (4.5 floors) Macy’s store. I fell in love with merchandising at Macy’s. Getting to work a 5am and placing the merchandise on the floor, following plan-o-grams, building new shelves and fixtures, paying attention to fabrics and colors, etc. I love the hard work that goes into being a merchandiser.
Well, I applied for a Full Time Visual Merchandiser position at a different Macy’s and they want to interview me!
I do have a minor in Theatre Arts and I built the sets, props and wired the lighting for my University’s performances, so I have no problem using tools and getting dirty.
I do not have “Visual” portfolio to show in my interview and I’m wondering how bad that would look? I know they would have to train me in visuals but I’m not sure if Macy’s wants someone who they have to train so I’m a little nervous. Do visual associates at large retail department stores all require some training?
Wow your question is right on time, as we just discussed this in my class. I have a student who is also interested in applying for a job at Macy’s with no portfolio.
Unfortunately it does not bode well for you. When I worked for Macy’s, I applied twice because the first time I did not have a portfolio of my work even though I had a lot of experience doing displays, but the guy who beat me out for the job had pictures of his work as a furniture designer.
My point is – even though you may not have display pictures to show, bring what you can. Anything that shows your creativity, shows you understand color, shows you understand balance and symmetry. I tell my students, jobs in other creative fields like flower arranging, photography, event planning, graphic design, etc….are skills that are all transferable to doing visual merchandising.
Your background in theater is HUGE – that’s exactly what display is – building little sets ! Hopefully you have some pictures of some of the plays you worked on and can tell the interviewer about the backgrounds you painted, the props you coordinated, and the actors you helped with costumes: backgrounds, props, and mannequins is what we do!
Talk up your hands-on experience in theater and what you do for them now, show pictures of your creativity in any aspect and you should do fine.
If by chance things don’t work out, and you still really want to do visuals, then apply again in October when they start hiring extra help for Christmas. That’s how I got in – as a trimmer for all those trees, garlands, and banners that needed to be hung! Once I got in I was able to prove myself to the boss, and it turned out I was the only Christmas hire they kept once the season was over!
I hope this was helpful.
Wishing you the best on Wednesday,
PS: The training – you will get training on the store standards only, you are expected to be creative and artistic already (and a quick thinker and good problem solver)!
Another reader wrote in asking about learning our trade when you live in a place whose schools do not offer visual merchandising classes:
I came across your wonderful blog while trying to find some visual merchandising classes in the great Midwest. I am in Minnesota, and I looked through all of the courses at CCSF, and I would DIE if I could find something accessible to me here in MN like the fashion classes they offer there! (Or even if they were offered online!) Do they ever offer weekend seminars or classes?
I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Fashion Design and Merchandising, but I never learned anything visual, or any styling tricks. Do you have any resources that may help me out? I’ve recently taken some Interior Design classes, but I am also not really learning any styling skills there. I really want to break into the industry and be creative again, it’s been a few years! I would greatly appreciate any advice you can give, even if it is a book recommendation!
Thank you for your time.
I did do a post on fashion schools on my blog, and I tried to focus on programs that have a visual merchandising program. Take a look at that and see if there is something offered that is not too far from MN.
I’m surprised your fashion merchandising degree didn’t require a class in visual merchandising or visual communications, as it’s a required class in order to complete our degree program.
The textbook I teach from is Tony Morgan’s, Visual Merchandising: Windows and In-Store Displays for Retail. It’s an easy to read book that offers the subject in the most practical and layman terms. The author is British, so a lot of the examples tend to be European stores as well as some of the store standards, but I’ve found much of the book is what I’ve done in my career as well.
I know the Academy of Art University, which offers an entire degree in Visuals uses Silent Selling, by Judith Bell and Kate Ternus, as one of their textbooks. This is a textbook in the truest sense of the word! If you must teach yourself then this is the book to use.
You can’t go wrong with any book by Martin Pegler, our “godfather of display”. I have copy of his latest book which I’m still trying to get through! It’s loaded with lots of information. I also interviewed him on the blog too.
The best way to learn our trade is to find a job in display. Start with a small chain store, you’ll learn a lot more as they offer training on visual standards for their stores, and you’ll learn fast as floor sets are constantly changing.
Every time you go out to any establishment, pay attention to what you see. That’s another way to teach yourself. The store study assignment I give my students is not just to keep them busy, it’s to start training their eye. The 10 questions they must answer is what we as display people do, and pay attention to in our daily jobs (the questions are on the blog as well).
I hope some of this was helpful. I am happy to answer any more of your questions.
Keep the questions coming! I will try my best to answer them as quickly as I can, and if they have a broad appeal such as the two above I will post them to the blog, so everyone can benefit. If you have some advice to share please post in the comments or send to me. Thanks!
Has anyone ever asked you what you do as a visual merchandiser and you’ve tried to explain it’s a job in fashion, yet not exactly! I found the cartoon below to be reminiscent of many a conversations I have had !
Here’s a great update from a reader who had actively been seeking a job in our field! Click on this link to get the back story.
I wanted to give you an update since you were so kind as to provide advice about a job as a visual merchandiser. I didn’t get the position with Macy’s. Due to lag time with the online job postings the position was already filled when I went in for the interview. I at least felt good that they granted me an interview.
The great news is that I was just hired on at Nordstrom as a Seasonal Visual Stylist!
I’ll share my experience with you and your students since I did not have an educational background in merchandising and still managed to land a job as a visual merchandiser.
My background is in finance, but I have always had a passion for design, fashion and anything creative. I gained “experience” by offering to be on call help for floral event set up. I usually would be called in on a Saturday or a Sunday so it never interfered with my “real job.” Many florists and wedding planners always need day-of help because so much has to be done in such a short amount of time. A good friend of mine is a well-known florist and that is how I was able to help with high end & celebrity weddings. Get to know some of the better known florists in your area and tell them you want to be on-call help. There are many tasks that don’t require huge creative skill and eventually you can work your way into some of the more creative tasks the more events you help with.
This on-call side job was always fun for me and not about the money. It was hard physical work but I loved every moment of it. One of the other things that I had on my “creative” resume is that I worked for a company that flipped homes and I would provide input in the redesign (choosing finishes, redesign kitchen layouts, etc.) I also had a hand in the actual demo and some of the other dirty work. An internship with an interior designer or contractor would provide some of this type experience.
How I got the position. Your best bet is during the holidays. Department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom have a huge store changeover for the holidays. Arcadia has mentioned this before, every year department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom, post seasonal visual positions during the month of October. As you know, I had a couple missed opportunities with Macy’s, but when I saw this posting I was determined to get it. I basically had to redo my resume and left off most of my financial jobs and highlighted all retail work, event and design work. Resumes are not one size fits all, you have to tweak your resume to the position your are apply for.
One of the key factors that put me at the top of the list was that I called the hiring store’s human resources directly a couple days after I submitted my application and resume. I asked if they received the application, let them know that I was very interested in the position and most importantly, that I would work through the holidays. Nordstrom loves to see initiative, even in people applying for support positions. The HR manager emailed the Visual manager as I was on the phone with her. I received a call the very next day to come in and chat. Another factor that help me stand out was that I had a little construction experience, this showed that I was not afraid of physical labor or climbing up 8 foot ladders.
Visual merchandising has been something that I have always wanted to do and I showed that I was passionate about it. Another thing about working as a seasonal visual stylist is that it is a requirement to work on Thanksgiving day. This is the day the holiday changeover happens. I am told that we are done at about 2pm still leaving time for Thanksgiving dinner. I didn’t care, I wanted the job. At the very least it pays time and half. =)
My passion paired with some decent side job experiences is what landed me the position. I was basically hired on the spot.
Hopefully this provides your students with a little “real world” insight. Thank you again for your advice. I enjoy your blog immensely and have learned a great deal.
There are few things J pointed out in her story that I really want to emphasis for new students:
- She gained experienced by working for creative types other than fashion. I can’t stress enough how great this is, as skills are transferable. If you can design a floral bouquet then you understand balance and symmetry, the very skills you would need for a display case. Fashion retailers aren’t the only place to gain experience. You need a broader background for display.
- “It was hard physical work but I loved every moment”. How many times have I said in class, our work may look pretty but there is nothing glamorous about the job! You can’t work in heels or be afraid to break a nail.
- She’s very passionate about her work and her persistence paid off. You can’t help but succeed when you are doing something you love!
Congratulations J! And thanks so much for sharing your story and experience, with your initiative and can-do attitude I can see Nordstrom keeping you even after the holidays!
Here is a great question from a new reader:
I just stumbled across your blog as I was doing last-minute prep for my interview with Macy’s tomorrow for a Seasonal Visual Associate. I don’t have any formal studies, but have had some creative experiences in merchandising, floral event design, styling and photography as well was retail sales experience.
Just wondering if you have any tips or input on what to expect for the first interview.
Here’s what I wrote back:
Really emphasize your “hands-on” experience in the areas that you mention. Skills in styling, floral design, etc transfer over into merchandising because you have trained your eye on what looks good and creating optical balance. Explain what you learned in retail sales, I’m sure you paid attention to how the sales floor was laid out, and which areas are the prime selling areas in the store (It’s always the front).
Visual Merch. and Window Display are “artsy” hands-on jobs. You can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty or move around store fixtures when called upon. You need creativity, organizational skills, and good time management, and it doesn’t hurt to be self-motivated. This is what I tell my students and what I would look for in a potential employee.
I started at Macy’s as a part-time Xmas trimmer as well. If you have a portfolio showing creative work you’ve done that’s a plus. When I applied many, many years ago – I didn’t get the regular permanent position because of my lack of a portfolio even though I had all kinds of experience. The guy with the portfolio, who was an artist got the position over me. The manager called me up a few months later and offered me the seasonal part-time position. I took it and worked really hard to learn how they did things. I was the only seasonal trimmer they kept once the holidays was over.
Best of luck to you!
I heard back from J and was told she did not get the seasonal position but was contacted for an interview for a full-time position instead!! That is wonderful news and I sincerely hopes this works out, as I could tell from our email correspondence J has a real passion for this kind of work!