Q&A: London College of Fashion's James Clark

Ahead of this month's Buying & Merchandising (B&M) Summit, which will be hosted in London on 22 September by Essential Retail's parent company Legend Exhibitions, we caught up with one of the delegates to gauge his views on modern retailing.

In an exclusive Q&A session, James Clark, senior lecturer at London College of Fashion, UAL, explains why merchandisers are more than just human calculators, what makes a good merchandising professional and how consumers – partly through the use of new technology – now have the power to make or break individual retailers.

Essential Retail (ER): Having started work as a merchandiser with Debenhams back in the 1980s, how has the role changed since then and how have the industry challenges evolved?

James Clark (JC): The most powerful example that I can think of is the gap between the final delivery of one season's product and the first delivery of the next. I can remember waiting for weeks at a time for large bulk deliveries of new season collections to be delivered to kick-start a season, rather than the more seamless flow of stock into a business today. The limitations of global sourcing and supply, basic information and communications technology and restrictive trading hours meant that decision making was slower and narrower in its considerations.

If one then considers this in comparison to today, the industry evolution buoyed by fundamental changes between demand and supply equilibrium has made the merchandiser broader in context. It has also made the role more targeted in its problem solving abilities due in part to greater access to big data but predominantly because of the reduction of time it takes to collate and analyse and action that data.

ER: What qualities make for a successful merchandiser?

JC: Numeracy is often quoted as an essential skill, but I do think that it is over egged within the list of qualities needed. To me, the role of the merchandiser should be broader than being a human calculator as it occupies a very distinct niche within a business. A merchandiser must understand how numbers, budgets and stock flows etc. impact the financial strength of a business, but they must also understand product and the perceived benefit that it will deliver to a target consumer. All merchandisers will have faced the dilemma of making a decision that might seem financially correct but creatively incorrect, or vice versa. The ability to be able to consider a decision in its widest sense and then have the strength of mind to justify it is at the heart of good merchandising to me.

ER: Which retailers do you think stand out at the moment in meeting the demands of customers and in their use of new technologies?

JC: There are so many as the application of technology appropriate to differing business models is endless. As a late starter to the party, House of Fraser has been doing some fantastic things both B2B and B2C. Fast fashion brands reinvented the wheel via technology allied with supply chain process and continue to impress. However, the smaller newer businesses really outshine; Lyst, EDITD and ModCloth are great. What is particularly good about businesses like Lyst and EDITD is that they understand that ultimately information is at the heart of technology and it is the user who interprets that information who will make or break a business. They work with us at the Fashion Business School at LCF to support our students with related assignments and are in effect not only investing in technology but also those who use it making it far more likely long term to benefit their consumers.

ER: What do you think has been the biggest change in retail in last ten years?

JC: Again, there are so many examples, but the empowerment of the consumer to buy what, when and how they like and then comment about it has had huge implications on their relationship with retail brands. The consumer can make or break a retailer, and we have seen so many examples, both good and bad of this. The challenge is to find a way to build relationships that are meaningful and do not instil notions of spin and brand management in the mind of the consumer.

ER: What courses does London College of Fashion offer retailers, and what specifically does it provide for merchandisers in the making?

JC: As already mentioned, I am part of the Fashion Business School within LCF and we offer a broad range of courses within three clusters of courses. Our Fashion Management under- and postgraduate courses focus on the breadth of disciplines such as B&M, Marketing, Supply chain, Finance, Retail and Digital. The Fashion Business cluster offers discipline specific courses that enable students to study one discipline only; B&M, Marketing, Visual Merchandising & Retail Branding or Design & Marketing. We also offer a cluster of Science courses that cover Cosmetic Science. In addition, we also offer post graduate specific courses such as our Executive MBA, Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation amongst others.

ER: You have recently published a book on Merchandising: Fashion Merchandising: Principles and Practice. Why did you decide to write the book? How did you find the experience? Who did you speak to? What did you learn?

JC: Fashion Merchandising: Principles and Practice took four years to write and was done so to kick-start the debate with B&M as to what the merchandising role should be going forward. The book lays out the classical role via a case study and demonstrates the role in practice. This is buffered by the context of the role prior to it and modern day influences such as e-retail and CSR after it. From there I am now researching technological disruption and its effects within stock management to move the subject on into the future rather than continually emphasising that past. The experience of writing the book was at the time hellish, but as time went by I realised that the scope for the role of merchandiser going forward is so compelling that it became almost an imperative to complete. As the scope broadened I spoke with many in industry as well as fellow academics. I cannot urge industry to engage with research initiatives such as mine enough – we are in such a state of fluidity within the industry that debate is needed.

Many of the issues addressed by Clark will be topics of debate at the Buying & Merchandising Summit 2015, which takes place at London's Cavendish Centre on 22 September. Speakers from Adidas, Boohoo.com, Levi's and Topps Tiles – as well as Victoria Plum board member George Adams – are among those confirmed for the one-day event, which includes a comprehensive educational conference programme and a valuable opportunity to network with industry peers.

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London College of Fashion, UAL