Visual merchandising now plays a vital role in adding value for retail companies and this can be a fulfilling field for design lovers, with plenty of scope for career development. "For me, it all began with a strong passion for design," says Alex Shea, section manager of communication and interior design, IKEA.
Before joining IKEA 10 years ago, Mr Shea spent a few years as a graphic designer. "The two design spectrums are completely different," he explains." You can work quite independently as a graphic designer, while visual merchandising requires a substantial degree of team work."
Mr Shea's role as section manager requires him to supervise every aspect of IKEA's home-accessories section. He says, "There are two section managers in my department. I take care of the home accessories while a colleague is in charge of the furniture section."
He usually starts his day at 9am to supervise his team while they prepare for the day. "We call this the 'morning round', when we tidy up after the previous evening and prepare for our customers' arrival," he says. "In the afternoon, I usually have a meeting with the sales department, where we pinpoint and plan for ongoing and upcoming projects in order to meet sales targets."
Additional duties include room and section setting to tie in with seasonal sales and promotions. "Prioritising according to our customers' buying behaviour is crucial," he stresses. This explains why visual merchandisers tend to revamp their sections monthly. Mr Shea's team generally spends a week conceptualising a new display, followed by two to three weeks executing it. "It's basically a cycle. Our main goal is to help generate maximum sales," he remarks.
The way up
Mr Shea initially joined IKEA as a part-time designer, but he was quickly promoted to assistant decorator. Through the years, he worked in the retail chain's stores in Shatin, Tsuen Wan, Mongkok, Kowloon Bay and, now, Causeway Bay. The moves around stores provided valuable experience, as it helped him compare different customer needs and buying behaviours across the districts.
Moving around has also helped him develop his visual merchandising skills. "My career path at IKEA has been smooth: from decorator to supervisor and finally to section manager, where I am today." He is grateful to the company for providing plenty of intensive training in styling, product knowledge and customer-servicing skills.
As an experienced and loyal employee, Mr Shea believes that his prospects of being promoted to department manager in another couple of years are good.
While there are no specific prerequisites for becoming a visual merchandiser or section manager, Mr Shea recommends a diploma in design or other relevant discipline. "Jobseekers with substantial experience will also be considered," he says, adding that it is crucial for prospective employees in the field to have effective communication skills. "We are often in direct contact with our customers. The role requires a cheerful disposition. Employees that are detail-oriented with a flair for style and design are also great assets. Most importantly, we are always looking for talented designers who are willing to learn and have a great team spirit," he emphasises.
Scandinavian design has set global trends in recent years. The current proliferation of design and makeover television shows is also boosting the home-furnishings industry in general, as people are inspired to make changes in their own homes.
As a result, Mr Shea points out, it is important that he and his team working in the home-accessories section remain up to date with global trends and visions. "I'm continuously pushing my team for better results, both in our own interest and in that of the business," he concludes.