Simply put, a visual merchandiser's main objective is to create designs for shop windows and in-store displays based on a theme, style or trend of advertising which best promotes a retail company's products. Their primary task is to catch the eye of the window-shopper or passer-by and make them stop, look, admire and be persuaded to spend a few of their hard-earned dollars.
As Joel Kwok, visual merchandising designer for the consumer goods business at Swarovski HK Ltd says, "It is important to bring out the message and story of a product. Through the careful use of items like props, the choice of colour, the use of fabric and lighting, we have to display merchandise in a way which gives the best possible image of the company and its products."
Typical day-to-day activities will include reviewing store display presentation, developing window display designs and training sales staff to understand the importance of presentation. To keep up-to-date, regular research must be done into lifestyle concepts and fashion trends which can then be incorporated into sketches and ideas for future designs.
Visual merchandising also has a great deal to do with communication and recognising different cultural attributes, especially for a global company like Swarovski. As Mr Kwok explains, "Our company's headquarters are in Austria so, though we work within corporate style guidelines, we modify things when appropriate to suit the Hong Kong market." The local office holds regular brainstorming sessions to get feedback from each department and to generate innovative ideas and comments.
Apart from occasional "artist's block", the most challenging part of the job is striking a balance between the company's perspective and one's own. "We may have our own ideas and preferences but we are not dealing with fine art, there is no place for subjectivity or ego," says Mr Kwok. "The key thing is to understand company policy and your retail environment, contribute where you can and focus on what can be done to attract shoppers and generate increased revenue."
There are a number of attributes which any visual merchandiser should possess: artistic creativity, a strong sense of colour, the ability to draw and design and an eye for detail. According to Mr Kwok, it is equally important to have the right attitude and outlook. "The role we play is sometimes called 'indirect selling' since our jobs deal with the commercial aspects of art," he explains. "While creativity is generally encouraged, we should always keep in mind that our objective is to optimise the presentation of a product, maximise sales and to enhance the company's image."
His career has brought Mr Kwok rewards and enormous job satisfaction. He began as an advertising trainee in 1987 and, after gaining a few years' work experience, decided to take evening classes in graphic design. This eventually led to a job in the field of visual merchandising and an offer, four years ago, to join Swarovski.
How far the job or career can take you depends hugely on the reputation, size and structure of the company you work for but, most of all, on one's individual determination. "Larger companies with more resources can give you better support and more space to develop your ideas so you can afford to be more innovative, bold and creative," explains Mr Kwok. "Smaller companies, on the other hand, may provide opportunities to gain exposure to related areas such as marketing and advertising."
Competition in the visual merchandising field is becoming tougher but, though there may be fewer job opportunities than in the past, this should not discourage those who are talented and determined. A qualification in a subject such as graphic design or visual communication is regarded as a prerequisite for the job but that is not all. As Mr Kwok notes, "Visual merchandising is more about having solid hands-on experience rather than academic qualifications because you need to be able to communicate with people from many different backgrounds."
In order to gain experience, Mr Kwok advises taking an art-related course while working in a frontline sales position for a sizeable retail company. "Salespeople can learn so much about the daily operations of the retail business," he says. "Nowadays, the assembly of displays is mainly done by salespeople who can pick up invaluable knowledge about visual merchandising along the way. If a person is not afraid of hard work this is one good way to start building a successful career."