Blog: Inspiring Minds

Want to shape the future of retail? Try working with the students of today
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Posted December 14, 2011

During my recent trip to New York for the annual Retail Design Collective, VMSD was invited to attend a Friday morning meeting at Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship store.

Harry Cunningham, senior vp, store planning and visual merchandising, sits on the advisory board for the Visual Communications School at FIDM (Los Angeles) and had invited about 15 students and school professionals to a roundtable discussion with some of Saks Fifth Avenue’s notable visual and store design staff members.

The panel – which included Matt Reed, vp, visual merchandising; Richard Fosdick, director/visual for women’s, men’s, kids and home; and Adam Carmichael, director of store design (who was also named the PAVE Rising Star 2011 two day earlier) – was extremely hospitable and open with the students. They shared their career paths, missteps and advice for getting a dream job.

And the students, fresh off a whirlwind week touring showrooms, retail flagships and even backstage at “Wicked,” had a lot of thoughtful and probing questions for the group. Topics such as sustainability, working through creative blocks and finding sources of inspiration were some of their concerns and interests.

One of the strongest messages to this handful of future visual merchandising professionals was that you need to get hands-on experience – that means hot glue gun burns, long hours, donuts and late-night candy snacks. Fosdick talked about starting his career as an apprentice and following his mentor around carrying a box full of pins. Cunningham talked about his joyful experience learning how to fluff wreaths and garland and how he walks around stores today wondering, “Why can’t they fluff garland?” Start on the sales floor, they all said, and get your hands dirty before you even think about going for that bigger corporate post.

As I sat there enjoying their stories and lively banter, I wondered what the future would hold for these students. With cuts to visual staffs over the past few years, do retailers even hire apprentices? Who would teach this crop of eager talents the proper way to fluff, tie or pin?

So as we all prepare to make our resolutions for 2012, I hope that retailers and design professionals dedicate themselves to giving more students the chance to get that real-world experience. Share your stories. Lead by example. Those stories – and skill and passion – should get passed on to the next generation.