June 3rd, 2011

Professional Interview #8: Aaron, Space Management Specialist

I haven’t done a Professional Interview in a while. Originally, I was doing the series as background for The Big Dream–not research, but to have a sense of the wildly varying specificities of working life. That’s all done now, and TBD is in page proofs (which, owing to a strong gust of wind while I wasn’t paying attention, are currently all over my dining room floor. I’m gathering strength to go pick them up and sort them), hence the gap.

This new interview is a bit different in that it’s specifically focussed on a job that a character I’m writing about (spoiler!) actually has. I really like to get the details right, and space management is not a field I have detailed knowledge of, so Aaron kindly agreed to fill me in. I find this stuff so interesting, so I thought I’d share it here in case you do too! Thanks, Aaron–you do cool work!


Q: What is your official job title? What is your official job description?

A: My official job title is “Senior Space Management Specialist”. The term “Merchandising Analyst” no longer forms a part of my job title but it is implied – at least it is where I work.

I don’t really know what my “official” job description is. I’m sure I have the offer letter for it somewhere; I just can’t seem to find it. I’ll sum it up as best I can:

I report to the Manager of Merchandising Services. Technically, no one actually reports to me. The other Space Management Clerks might report to me on a task-by-task basis, but generally only if it is a task or project that I am directly in charge of. I am not their supervisor.

I’m responsible for creating and updating planograms that will help grow sales in our stores. To do that, I’m responsible for running sales, gathering information and presenting it so that it will help me and the Category Manager of that planogram determine how we can get the best results out of the planogram.

I’m responsible for helping maintain our database of section sizes by store, which help us determine which versions of each planogram need to be built.

I’m responsible for various reporting duties that include (but are not limited to) many types of sales reports, both on a regularly-scheduled basis and on a by-request basis.

As Senior Space Management Specialist, I act as the principle point of contact between the Space Management department and the Front Store Manager of any new stores and renovating stores while they are setting the store up prior to opening/re-opening.

I also act as the principle point of contact between other departments in the office and the Space Management team. I help to ensure that they are not tied up with frivolous requests that take away from more important ones.

Working knowledge of our space-planning software (or other space-planning software), Microsoft Office (Access, Excel, Outlook, Word), our stores’ POS software and our warehouse inventory software would all be considered assets (particularly the store POS) but not required.

Experience as a Merchandiser would also be considered an asset, but not a pre-requisite.

Q: What do you actually do in a typical day? (If your cycles are longer than one day, a typical week?)

A: The work cycles involved in creating planograms are not only longer than a day; they’re longer than a week too. As a result, I usually have several planograms in progress at any one time, at various stages of their cycle.

The cycle of planogram creation generally follows a pattern, if not an exact timeline. Too many variables exist to map it out precisely but in general, it happens in the following order:

1) Sales reports are run for the existing planogram. This will not only include the items that are present in the largest version of the existing planogram, but any other items in our listings database that could theoretically be added to the section. For example: Many items are listed for in-and-out promotions that don’t form a part of the planogram but, depending on their performance in the market, might warrant being added to the planogram.

This will include not only our own POS sales, but information from the market in general. We will also examine which items from the existing planogram have since been discontinued by their manufacturer/distributor, which represent known holes that need to be filled. That’s not to say that other items which are still available won’t also be removed to make room for newer and/or better-performing items, but those decisions come later.

This information is all put together in a package that is sent to the Category Manager for him/her to examine. The Category Manager will use this data, and take into account any presentations from sales representatives (aka. “Reps”) of companies trying to sell our C.M.s on carrying their products, to come up with a strategy that they wish to employ when we design the new planograms. I will have made some recommendations based on the data that I have, but ultimately the decisions are in the hands of the C.M.s.

2) When the Category Manager has had a chance to review the data, we will typically meet and discuss where we go from there. This might or might not involve working up a test planogram right there. If the C.M. already has all of the new product samples that we need and they were given to me in advance (to have their dimensions measured for input into the software’s product library) we could work up a test. If not, we’ll use the meeting to determine which products the C.M. wants to add and which ones to drop. We’ll also get a basic plan down for how we want to approach the build.

The C.M. will then acquire the necessary samples so that a test planogram can be worked up when the samples have arrived.

3) Samples are acquired and their dimensions measured. A test planogram is created. This is usually most common version among all of our stores (also typically the largest). This is done to figure out which products we can actually fit in the planogram, and therefore which ones the Category Manager has to get listed.

4) The test planogram is sent to a store in the city. They will order in any new products and a time will be set for me to go and set up the test planogram.

This is done because, as useful as computers are, we believe it is important to make sure that the physical results match what we see on the screen and that there aren’t any unforeseen difficulties. (A good example would be a product that has changed its packaging and though the amount of product in the package is the same, the physical dimensions of the product are not what they were when we measured them before. Perhaps the package decreased in height but increased in width. This will affect how many products we can fit on the shelf.) If we don’t test the planogram, we might not catch such problems beforehand and will send out a planogram to our stores that doesn’t work and then the Category Manager will get angry emails and phone calls from stores trying to figure out how it is supposed to work.

Usually we test the only one version of the planogram; the largest and most common one in our stores. Our stores are not cookie-cutter designs and can vary in size quite a bit. This will affect how many different sections they can carry and what sizes those sections will be. If the most common planogram size is not the largest, we will probably test the most common one instead. In some situations, we might test both the largest and the most common planogram (in different stores), particularly if we expect the largest to become a more commonly seen version as we move forward with renovations and new stores.

The test planogram is set up and adjustments are made. If the store is able to order all of the products in the planogram now (I’ll have brought samples for testing purposes if not) then the planogram will be left up for the store. Otherwise, it will be returned to its original state.

5) The remaining versions of the planogram are built. The Category Manager views them and asks for any changes. Changes are made until all versions are approved.

6) Planograms are launched to the stores.

The Merchandising Analyst side of my job operates with more regularity. Various reports are run on intervals that range from weekly, to monthly, to bi-monthly, to quarterly, to semi-annually, to annually. Some reports involve extracting information from our POS (Point-of-Sales) software (which also houses our product listings database) to be converted into a more useful format (Access or Excel) for day-to-day use. Other reports involve extracting sales information to be organized and reported for billing/commission purposes. I usually take care of these as early as possible in the week, to get them done and out of the way so as to leave as much of the rest of my week free as possible for working on planograms. Category Managers may request additional reports for various reasons during the week. These requests are prioritized and balanced with the rest of my workload.

I should note that these reports are not from the Rx (prescriptions drugs) side of the business, but from the rest of the store (including OTCs (Over-The-Counter medications), Confectionary, Cosmetics, etc.).

Q: I think a lot of merchandising work would be applicable across the retail industry–if you got sick of working for a drug-store company, you could probably take your skills to a grocery-store or the Gap. Am I right about that? What would be the hardest parts of the job to relearn if you did that?

A: For the most part, I would say that is quite accurate. If I wanted to keep doing the kind of work I’m doing now but in a different retail environment, I shouldn’t have much difficulty transferring my skills. Grocery chains definitely use planograms. I don’t know if retail clothing outlets make use of them or not, but something like a Staples probably would.

It’s unlikely that a small business would take the time to design proper planograms. They would be more likely to adjust their shelves to hold the inventory that they have on hand, fill holes left by discontinued items and move new products in as they get them. It would be medium and large businesses with multiple retail locations that would employ Space Management personnel. The purpose of creating planograms is not just to have the best items available, but to have a consistency to your product offering and layout across your retail environment.

I explain it to the lay-person like this: If you have a particular brand, scent and size of deodorant that you prefer to buy, it is my job to see that if you go into two of our locations that have the same size of deodorant & anti-perspirant planogram (section length and section height – either can vary from store-to-store), you will be able to find that deodorant in the exact same spot of the section in both stores. That’s assuming, of course, that your preferred product is not a bottom-feeder in the market. In that case, your product might disappear from the shelf. If it does, it will disappear from the other store too.

As for the hardest parts of the job to relearn, in the short-term it would be learning how to operate their space planning software (the one we use is not what I perceive to be the industry standard – ours is, to my knowledge, more powerful) and the software involved with obtaining sales data. I have no doubt that I would catch on quickly enough, but until I did I would feel fairly useless. After that, I would need to learn to understand the products that I would be planogramming and how customers shop for these products. Finally, I would need to learn how this company’s space-planning practices differ from how I approach planograms now.

Q: [Since you work in the head office of your company, h]ow often do you have to go to an actual store? What do you do when/if you go there?

A: Someone who does my job would have to work in at least a regional office of some sort, if not the head office. I do work in my company’s head office. It is from there that I am able to distribute any new planograms to all of our stores.

As noted above, once for every planogram that I work on, I will have to visit a store.

I should point out that this physical testing is not necessarily an industry-standard practice. I know of at least one, very large vendor who produces planograms that rarely, if ever, tests their planograms physically. Having seen the results, they should.

Another reason to visit a store would be if they are renovating (or if they are a new store prior to opening) and within the city or not too far beyond it. In such cases, my department will usually make one or more trips to the store to assist with any new developments in Space Management, such as brand new sections never seen before in our stores. These might also simultaneously be regarded as test planograms.

Q: What is the pace of work? Do most days resemble each other in terms of pace, or do you have busy times and easy times? If the latter, what causes a busy time? Is it a big problem if you have to call in sick?

A: Some days are definitely busier than others. Mondays, in particular, are always busy for me due to the number of reports and other responsibilities from the Merchandising Analyst side of the job. Most of them need to be done early in the week, so I cram as much of it into Monday as I can. I get very little Space Management work done on a Monday. This is not necessarily true of the other two guys. As Senior Space Management Specialist, I have some responsibilities that they do not.

Sudden reporting requests can also increase the pace of work. Days when I get to work on nothing but building planograms are the ones that feel the easiest. That’s not to say that I’m getting less work done, but it weighs less on the mind, and so feels easier. If I’m getting close to a deadline and still have planograms left to build, that can also increase the pace.

I suppose I’m equating pace with stress level. The more stressed I am, the more frantic the work feels. The less stressed I am, the more I have time to think about what I’m doing and ponder alternatives. I’m also equating pace with the days I’m mostly likely to stay late to keep working. More likely to stay late equals higher pace, at least it does in my mind.

It is not usually a problem if I have to call in sick. Mind you, I’m a stubborn bastard and pretty much have to be vomiting every 15 minutes and barely be able to walk before I call in sick, so this never really gets tested. Most of the reports that I have to do can either be put off for a couple of days or handled by the other two guys if they can’t wait. As for planograms, there’s almost never anything so pressing that my being absent for a day or two would be a problem. In a pinch, the other two guys can access any planograms that I’m working on as they’re stored on a network drive that we all have access to. If they had to launch one of my planograms for me, they would have to retrieve other files that I don’t store on a network drive, but on a personal drive instead. All but one of those files they could retrieve from the Category Manager of the category the planogram is from, and the other file they could easily recreate themselves.

Q: How many stores are you responsible for? How many other people do the sort of work you do within the company?

A: I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I believe our chain has close to 70 stores. In addition to that, we provide planograms for the OTC sections of the pharmacies within the grocery stores of our parent company across the country (I can’t even guess how many of these stores there are).

There are two other people besides myself who work as Space Management Clerks (again, Merchandising Analyst is also a part of their jobs, though not necessarily stated in their titles) not including our boss. She mostly oversees our work and helps ensure that we’re working at a good pace, but from time-to-time she may take a project on herself. As she is responsible for more than just the Space Management team, she spends most of her time dealing with duties and projects outside of our department. We are fairly self-sufficient, which helps to make this possible for her.

Can you talk a little more about what the plannogram software produces? Does it give you an image or a graph, or simply a list of data?

While you’re working with it on the computer screen, one window shows a diagram of the section you’re working on (at whatever dimensions you’ve specified), complete with how many shelves you’ve put in there (at whatever dimensions you’ve specified) and with the however many products you’ve put on the various shelves this far (at whatever dimensions the product library has stored for them, if it is in the product library at all — if not, it will give you a window for you to enter information that it will then save in the library).

Another window shows a list of the items in the planogram.

A third window, that starts out minimized, shows a “shopping cart”. Items that are deleted from the planogram automatically go here. You could, in theory, import a list of items that you intend to add to the planogram here and from here drag and drop the items into the planogram (either the diagram or the item list would work). We don’t do that, but other organizations might. Some programs treat the shopping cart differently — some treat it as a disembodied shelf on the planogram diagram, outside of the section’s actual dimensions. I think our program can treat it this way too, but we prefer the 3rd window option.

There are other kinds of shelves than just shelves. There’s pegboard (board with holes in it at set intervals that allow you to insert peg-hooks that allow you to hang products that use hangers or have peg-holes themselves), slatwall (similar to pegboard but instead of holes it has horizontal grooves at set vertical intervals that allow you to hang products but is less restrictive than pegboard horizontally – often more restrictive vertically though) and lots of other things that we don’t use – hanging bars, case displays (think the freezer cases in the middle of aisle near the meat section of a grocery store – the ones you look down into to get whatever meat might be on sale that week or what brand of pizza is on special) and so on.

Everything needs to have dimensions entered at some point – everything! Even though the picture looks two-dimensional, everything has (at least) three-dimensions. Even pegboard and slatwall, which are the most 2D things you get, have “interval” dimensions — how far apart the center of the pegholes / slatgrooves are. How far apart the notches are in the uprights that shelves can be inserted into is a kind of dimension. If there’s a buffer-zone at the top or bottom of the section where there are no notches/pegholes/slatwall, that’s another kind of dimension that can be entered. The amount of vertical space occupied by a shelf (it’s “thickness”) is another dimension that can have an impact.

I can’t understate how important dimensions are. Depending on how information is entered into the product library, it might be something that could be imported with the other information, or it might be something that the user enters themself – item-by-item. For me it’s typically the latter, to a point. If you have ten different items that are all the same dimensions (height, width and depth), you could measure one of the products and enter and save those dimensions for all ten. You do what you can to save time whenever possible, but not to the point where you risk comprimising accuracy.

But, to get back on topic, what is printed out for stores is a shot of the diagram and a shelf-by-shelf item list. We could, in theory, print out more than just that. If a graph of some sort would be helpful, our program has some capabilities of doing that. I don’t know if all space management software packages do and I suspect that several of them don’t.

If the section is very big in relation to the average size of the product, we may include several shots of the diagram, some of them zoomed in closer to see just part of the section so it is easier for the store to visually check that they’re on the right track. That won’t usually happen with just the click of a button, so we’ll have to print out several files (in PDF) and combine them all later.

What makes you good at your job? I imagine it as a very visual/spatial kind of intelligence–is that something you need in this role?What sort of person would you recommend pursue this line of work? What sort of person should stay away from it?

I don’t think it is any one quality that makes me good at what I do, but having a right combination of qualities. Note that I said “a” right combination, rather than “the” right combination. There are many different qualities that, as long as you’re good at some of them, you can learn the rest.

I think the most important one is attention to detail; to accuracy. Being off by even fractions of an inch (those fractions can add up quickly) can be the difference between a section working the way it is supposed to, to the store having to make adjustments to get it close to what you told them would work. Likewise with the sales data that is run to analyse the section. If you fail to take into account that a product underwent a package change that necessitated a UPC change (there are rules that govern these things), you may fail to notice that, individually, those two different UPCs don’t look like a very good product but, when added together, they end up being one of your top-ranked products. If you miss these things, you could be missing out on sales.

Visual/spatial intelligence can definitely be very helpful. Someone without a good awareness of this could get away with it to a point. Because we work in computers first and foremost, the program will alert you when things are off. The shelf turns red on the screen when the products you’ve put on it are too wide (added together) for the length of the shelf. The entries in the items list turn yellow when the product doesn’t fit in the space you’ve put it in. Fixing these problems is where an innate awareness for such things comes in handy. Otherwise, you’re just blindly plugging and playing until you get something that works. And, when things don’t work out physically the way they did in the screen, having a good awareness will help you solve it quicker and probably give you a hint as to what dimensions are the ones that are off. Paying attention to what is seen at eye-level is very important. There are a lot of other intangibles that can go into what makes a planogram look good or bad. One example: having large products up high and small products down low will make the planogram look top-heavy and be unappealing to look at.

Having an eye for color (i.e. this color doesn’t look good next to that color) can also be a benefit , but sadly, this is an area I don’t excel in. I can get by without it but arguably my planograms would be even better if I had an eye for this.

It is a job where I do believe that one of the most important things you should have is prior merchandising experience. It very much helps to be able to think as a someone at store level thinks and be able to balance their concerns/needs with that of growing sales. For example, if you only devote one facing to a product that a store can only fit three-deep on a shelf and it comes in a case of 12, you’re really going to piss the stores off to have to store 9 of those products out back (a 3-to-1 ratio of out-back to on-shelf). That product should probably get a couple of more facings to get the majority of the case on the shelf.

When you go into the stores to implement the plannogram, do the staff or management ever disagree? Do in-store staff get surveyed on
merchandising? Are there aspects of it that are up to the individual store’s team, or is everything decided centrally?

Do you mean disagree with me going there to set up the planogram, or disagree with the decisions we’ve made with the planogram itself? If the former: if the store was adamant that we not test in their location we would respect their wishes. It’s never come up though, as most stores are more than happy to have someone from the office come in and do the work for them. They might negotiate with me a little on the exact timing if the date I was aiming for was a bad time for them (they might have an inventory scheduled that day, for example), in which case I will work with them to get a time that works for both of us.

If the latter, everyone has an opinion. If there’s something they don’t like, they’ll usually ask questions about it. I’ll do my best to explain the rationale behind the decision and try to make them more comfortable with it. Once in a while, they do bring up something I hadn’t considered that not only makes sense, it also seems viable. It’s rare that I would completely redesign a planogram for something like that, but I certainly would adjust a couple of shelves if their suggestion seems like it would improve sales.

Store management know how to get a hold of category management if they wish to make comments on the merchandising. Some store managers are very vocal, others not so much. We do our best to keep stores happy, but sometimes keeping them happy would hurt sales so we sometimes have to ask them to just go along with it.

Most everything is decided centrally. We mostly avoid having “flex space” in the planograms. That said, we know that some stores will go behind our back and make their own modifications. For example, they might sell a lot of a particular product that we didn’t provide what the store considers an adequate number of facings for. They might reduce facings on other products to increase that one instead. We basically just turn a blind-eye to this. We know we can’t really expect to give the perfect planogram to everyone. Oddball situations are just the nature of the business.

Do you have a cube or an office? If a cube, how tall are the walls? If an office, do you have a window?

A cube. I’m not sure of the exact height (I’ve never had to planogram one, so I’ve never measured it :) ). It’s not quite as tall as I am. It’s a bit over 5 feet high, but no more than 5-1/2 feet high at the most.

Does your office have a dress-code? If so, what are the basic parameters?

It does: Business Casual. It’s pretty broad category – basically, I’m not required to wear a suit and tie but still need to look professional.

What do most people in your office do at lunch-hour? Are lunches even taken, or are people pushed to “work through”?

Most people seem to take a lunch, and most of them take the full allotted break, but obviously that depends on the person. Some bring their lunches every day, some go out for fast-food every day and there’s many who are somewhere in between. Some use the lunchroom (even some of the fast-food people will bring it back to the lunchroom) others eat at their desk. Like pretty much any other office, some will occassionally use their lunch break to run errands but I don’t think there are many who consistently do this. Some even use their lunch break to go to the gym 2-3 times a week (there’s one very close by).

So far as I’m aware, it would be against company policy to push employees to work through their lunch. Some will work through it, but that’s usually because it is in their nature to do so. Some others come in early to get things done, some others stay late. I think, though, that the total number of people who contribute extra time regularily are in the minority.

Me again, just to say that I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing with this series, as I don’t have any vocationally specific/intense stories coming up. However, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being interested in work and jobs, so if you would be interested in participating in this series yourself, I’m sure I’d love to interview you. The only rules are that you earn income from the job and you’ve been doing it at least a year (approximately). Even if you don’t think your work is that fascinating, it’s probably because you do it all the time and to an outsider it actually is!! If you might be interested, let me know on the “contact” tab above, and I’ll get right back to you!

And thanks again to Aaron!!

2 Responses to “Professional Interview #8: Aaron, Space Management Specialist”

  • Angela Graham says:

    Came across with this posting searching for a specific job that I have an interest and very similar to what you used to do creating a planogram for grocery chains. Currently I am a reset merchandiser for a company, I work at a different Grocery Food Chain stores: Fred Meyer, QFC, Safeway, Albertson and sometimes independent stores for remodels and projects. My job is to implement product placements per POG. I would like to expand in creating a planogram for a any major Grocery food chain. I found out that all stores use a template specific for their store. I am even considering taking a Space planning certification from JDA, but not sure if with this certification and my current experiences would be sufficient enough. I would like to be successful in this field and even thinking about going back to school but question is: what field would target this specific interest and are food chains requires degree? My experience are: 7 years in WINCO as a PIC, order writer and implemented their program of quality assurance which I had built and train employee from ground and up; Fred Meyer 1 year home department price coordinator; 4 years as a reset merchandiser (food and non food), 4 years in retail clothing experience and 18 years in Food industry combined experience. I am 46 years old and would like your input as to where I should begin. Appreciate all the help you can give.

  • Rebecca says:

    Thanks for your comment, Angela. I wish I could be of help, but I’m afraid this was a one-off interview. I myself don’t have any experience in merchandising. It’s a fascinating field, though! All the best with your work!

  • Leave a Reply

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

Now and Next

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow Me

Good Reads

What People are saying!


Search the site