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If you've ever wondered about the elaborate display windows at the Bay or at Harry Rosen, considered the differences in mannequin poses between H&M and Holt Renfrew, or even mused about the labyrinthine layout of a sale at Best Buy, then you've glimpsed the true heart of retail: visual merchandising. While sales associates may be the gears and pulleys of any store chain, with managers keeping an eye on the stores' overall well-being, it's the merchandising team that provides the fuel to keep sales competitive. Offering desirable products isn't enough to make a store succeed, especially in the current economic climate; retailers need to engage their customers on multiple levels, and eye-catching displays are vital.

To provide an inside opinion, we've spoken to three of Toronto's industry experts: the program designer of retail management at Ryerson, Sean Sedlezky; Seneca's David McDermid, the program coordinator for visual merchandising arts; and Andrij Brygidyr, a lecturer at U of T's Rotman School of Management and president of A&A Merchandising Ltd. Their recommended approaches to a career in visual merchandising are as diverse as the stores one might work for. Sedlezky suggests that people skills and retail experience are key; Brygidyr eschews formal training for technical aptitude and interest; and McDermid explains that a background in visual arts is more common in Seneca's program than one in business.

Typically, retailers will employ a range of merchandisers from entry level presentation assistants to display managers, from employees focusing on the local flagship store to a team sent around the world to establish footholds in foreign markets. The work is challenging and interesting, and requires awareness of deliveries and sales, budget restrictions, company policies, consumer trends, and competitor strategies - and that's all before they even start on the layout. Though Brygidyr is quick to point out that a high school diploma and the right motivation are all that's needed to get started, those of you looking to climb the ranks in retail might be interested in one of the preparatory programs on offer, from fashion merchandising at Vancouver's LaSalle College to the visual merchandising arts diploma at Conestoga College in Ontario.

Despite the differing opinions on which skill sets are most useful, there are certain elements on which all three of our insiders can agree. Aspiring merchandisers should be extremely well-organized and capable of managing several different elements at once, as well as being creatively-minded and prepared for hands-on work. The practical side of merchandising is emphasized through opportunities such as Ryerson's association with the Downtown Yonge BIA, where students are given the chance to pair off with real store display coordinators and compete for best visual merchandiser. Similarly, Seneca offers comprehensive training in ÔÇÿdisplay tech' such as foamcore (a preferred medium in display construction) and other tools of the trade, emphasizing the importance of a creative and practical mindset. ÔÇÿPlanograms,' detailed maps of a store's shelves and displays, are vital to this aspect of the work, allowing merchandising teams to rapidly arrange products while maintaining a unified aesthetic appeal ' a life-size game of Tetris and the Sims, combined.

If you're already enrolled in a diploma or degree unrelated to merchandising but feel like it might be a good fit as a career, don't be too hasty switching majors ' your part-time job has probably already given you a solid background to build on. Enthusiasm and training can only get you so far, and effective merchandising requires more than just theory; both Sedlezky and McDermid agree that being able to execute an idea requires an appreciation of the difficulties of front-line retail. Certainly number one is [industry] background and knowledge, summarizes Brygidyr, [But] number two is communication.

So, the next time you're on shift folding a pair of jeans or arranging Nalgene bottles for display, take a moment and appreciate the deeper strategy at work ' it may help you find a new career.

Photos: Michael Jung/Thinkstock