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NEW YORK, United States — Jennifer Sunwoo is chief merchandising officer at Barneys New York, a role she has held since 2017, having joined the 95-year-old luxury retailer in 2011.
Sunwoo’s career in merchandising began in the late 1990s at J. Crew. Leaving for Bergdorf Goodman after two years, she spent 12 years as the retailer’s divisional merchandise manager before decamping to Barneys. Sunwoo is responsible for the curation of brands stocked at Barneys, working across teams to align every aspect — including pricing, marketing, and visual merchandising — to ensure the highest return on investment for both the brand and the retailer.
The role has changed significantly during the course of her career, due to digital innovation and shifting consumer behaviour increasing the pace of consumption. To keep up, a merchandiser must be more adaptive, creative and tenacious than ever. Below, the veteran merchandiser shares her four tips for success.
1. Be adaptive and forward thinking
Jennifer Sunwoo: Everything is global yet immediate, so it’s much more competitive. This means you have to continuously cultivate a unique point of view, discover new talent and secure exclusive brands to provide a strong point of difference for the customer. [The industry] just gets faster and faster and it becomes more challenging to get there first.
Technology has had an enormous impact on the industry and on the requirements of being a successful merchant. You have to be so much more resourceful, agile, adaptable and entrepreneurially minded — the old business models are now irrelevant. You have to consider social and digital in addition to physical stores, the experiential factor, and the multigenerational consumer base to understand who the new customers are.
The role of being a merchant is incredibly dynamic, you collaborate with designers and vendors but you also contribute to marketing, visual and creative.
2. Cultivate technical and interpersonal skills
JS: It’s important to develop a strong foundation of qualitative abilities like resourcefulness and thinking outside of the box. Young merchants should foster creativity — not only in terms of product — but in the way they approach the business. You need to build strong communication skills, the ability to work in a team, to collaborate and also become resilient. The role of being a merchant is incredibly dynamic, you collaborate with designers and vendors but you also contribute to marketing, visual and creative. You facilitate operations within the company and you’re in every aspect of the business.
In regards to technical skills, Excel is crucial. I had a very limited understanding of Excel when I started, and it’s something you can pick up on the job, but it’s extremely helpful if you can enter the role with Excel skills. If these skills aren’t as evolved, it will be much more challenging to execute the administrative tasks that are part of your role in the first few years of being an assistant merchant.
3. Demonstrate enthusiasm for all aspects
JS: One of the most important factors is demonstrating dedication and passion. To be a successful merchant, you have to be committed, show a high level of dedication and true passion. I assume that most people I interview for these roles have a true passion for product, that’s a prerequisite.
Early in my career, when people asked me to describe what I did, they seemed surprised when I would compare it to asset management, in that we’re given capital, then developing, operating, monitoring investments in order to deliver the highest returns. It’s not as glamorous as people think. There’s some incredibly hard work — it’s not just about an innate love of products — even though it’s important that you do.
4. Show a desire to learn and develop
JS: Speak to many individuals who occupy the roles that you’re seeking, go to the stores or the website, [read] the editorial features and any news that you can get your hands on to enlighten yourself and make yourself more knowledgeable, so that you’re as prepared as possible when you come in for an interview.
It’s also important to demonstrate an interest in development. As you develop your career, it’s highly important that you’re always experiencing a learning curve — it’s something that I find critical to my dedication to the job. I am always hungry for more. Whether it was taking on the private label businesses or having an interest in other categories, mentoring a group of merchants, working closely with the fashion office, or segueing into planning. Having an interest and a hunger for the business and the brand is extremely important. It’s what continues to propel me in my role.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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