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The New Rules of Merchandising

The internet has disrupted the way brands and retailers turn designs into the sort of products that fly off shelves, elevating the role of the merchandiser. Companies that encourage collaboration and intuition informed by data can stay a step ahead.
Source: Getty Images
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Everlane's straight leg crop pant is one of its most popular styles. Launched in the summer of 2018, the trousers are cut with a high waist and cropped ankle, nailing the new silhouette that's starting to break the long dominance of skinny jeans.

The direct-to-consumer brand’s carefully considered wardrobe basics have struck a chord with shoppers since it launched in 2011. But as the brand scales, the real mark of success is its ability to build off of a hit item and keep its loyalists coming back from more. That turned out to be true for the crop pant: a version of the style in eight-wale corduroy quickly sold out last autumn, and are back in stock this year.

There’s nothing revolutionary about a brand offering corduroy pants; 1970s trends are sweeping fashion. But Everlane was able to venture into “trendier” territory armed with merchandisers’ data and designers’ intuition. Plus, it already knew what kind of style its customer wanted to wear.

“Before we even build product, we bring in groups from across the company ... so we can think about how the product will come to life,” said Erika Edelson, Everlane’s vice president of merchandising. “How it’s going to show up at the end of the day is integrated into the entire way of working.”


Everlane's crop pant is an example of merchandising at its best: the art of turning a design into an item — preferably multiple items — that will appeal to different types of consumers. It's an essential part of the retail formula, from luxury brands like Dior (where Artistic Director Maria Grazia Chiuri is often cited as a rare example of a "great designer and also a great merchandiser") to affordable retailers like Old Navy, digital labels like Everlane and luxury boutiques like The Webster.

Traditionally, merchandisers were kept separate from the design team, often brought in at the end of the process to determine how much of an item to produce and where to set the price. Or, in the case of runway collections, merchandising teams produced sales-friendly pre-collections or commercialised versions of runway collections.

But the internet has disrupted the old rules of merchandising. Online brands like Everlane are less likely to follow the traditional cycle of seasonal releases and end-of-season discounts. Trends move faster and are more likely to resonate with a narrow demographic rather than consumers as a whole. Shoppers have less brand loyalty and are more price-conscious.

Many brands and retailers are empowering their merchandising teams. Merchandisers armed with data on past seasons’ sell-throughs often collaborate with creative teams from the earliest stages of product development and go on to advise the marketing, customer service and supply chain teams.

The role of merchandising hasn't really changed. The resources around them have.

"The role of merchandising hasn't really changed," said Robert Rizzolo, an executive who has worked in merchandising at Gap, Gucci and Burberry. "The resources around them have," Rizzolo said.

Better communication on a daily basis is key, especially between merchandising and design.

“We can’t wait to share feedback and data with our designers because if we do wait, it may be too late,” Rizzolo said. “If we, as merchants, want them to make educated decisions ... we have to keep them informed.”

At Gucci, the merchandising teams provide Alessandro Michele's design team with information about trends and customer preferences that can play into their creative decisions. For instance, the brand's backless, fur-lined leather loafers, which became a street-style hit after debuting on the runway for Autumn 2015, drew more-conservative shoppers to the classic version of the shoes.


Edelson said that at Everlane, merchants are just as likely to be the first to try on a fit sample as designers. But their focus is on long-term strategy, looking at the categories that are important to the customer and how they are reacting to what is already in the market.

She said the company is trying to avoid the traditional approach of looking at past seasons and replicating top sellers. Instead, Everlane might look at its sweater offerings and fill in gaps in fabrications, styles and price.

“It grows from there, as opposed to ‘comping’ the business,” said Edelson, referring to the practice of having design teams create styles that fill parameters set by last year’s sales.

With so much data available about what customers are buying, merchants are still figuring out what figures are useful. Sales are the simplest sign, but customer reviews and feedback from team members can fill out the picture.

Trends can be measured, though merchandisers must focus not only on which products are rising or falling, but also why and with which customer groups.

For example, data showing that sales of cross-body bags are increasing while sales of satchels are decreasing does not necessarily mean a brand should design more cross-body styles, Rizzolo said. The underlying insight is simpler — customers want their hands free for easier texting — and results in more creative freedom.

Robert Burke, of retail consultancy Robert Burke & Associates, said there is a “recalibration” happening in the way that merchandisers rely on data, describing the importance of intuition in an emotional market such as fashion.

“We’re not buying and selling commodities,” he said.


Merchandisers also need to have a more nuanced understanding of their global customer, including familiarity with regional markets. The explosion of capsule collections for holidays like Ramadan or Chinese New Year is an example of clever merchandising. Brands must also be aware that an item that's acceptable in one market may be offensive in another; the global consumer can see everything.

Multi-brand retailers have different barriers to evolve their merchandising strategies, in part because they operate more of a "numbers game" that depends on low-risk, proven sales tactics, said Ron Frasch, operating partner at Castanea, a private equity firm. These stores face more competition both online and offline, and are under more pressure to offer popular pieces season after season. Their buyers, who determine which pieces a retailer will carry from a brand, typically have strict budgets to follow.

“You have to have buyers that have intuition, knowledge, a fashion savviness,” Frasch said. “I see a lot less of it now.”

He said the lack of creative risk-taking among buyers at big department stores is one reason smaller retailers that pitch themselves to a narrower group of customers are thriving. Among them: The Webster, an independent luxury boutique, and Ssense, the online luxury streetwear and avant-garde fashion site. The edit is the differentiating factor.

Indeed, data alone doesn’t have all the answers. Brands that are successful today have found new ways to not only marry quantitative and qualitative inputs, but also bake those insights into the creative process from the beginning.

“Merchandising is almost as essential as the design,” said Burke. “There’s no compromise in saying that, and in fact, it’s a huge asset.”

Explore how Gucci’s powerful merchandising strategy has driven its record-breaking growth in BoF’s latest in-depth case study. Created exclusively for BoF Professional members, case studies explore the most important challenges facing the industry today. Click below to download.

Related Articles:

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Decoding Gucci's Merchandising SuccessOpens in new window ]

A New Era of Retail Is ComingOpens in new window ]

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