Careers in Fashion Buying

by | March 10, 2009

Buying and merchandising refers to the process by which stores purchase merchandise from wholesalers and, in turn, sell it to customers. Buyers select products that will target the next trends for that market. A buyer for a boutique is very different than a buyer for a department store. A buyer for a boutique may rely more on fashion trends and vendor suggestions. A buyer for a department store may analyze past sales for the store, profit margins and cost of goods sold information before they place an order. Merchandisers promote the sale of garments. They may work with designers, salespeople, or retailers. A merchandiser may advise salespeople how to sell or display the product. Like designers, all buyers and merchandisers begin as assistants.

Jobs

Assistant buyer: Assists the buyer in the purchase and tracking of merchandise.
Buyer: Purchases the appropriate merchandise for the store's customers.
Assistant merchandiser: Helps merchandiser successfully promote product.
Merchandiser: Develops and implements the product line. Must be able to communicate with customers as well as coordinate with sales team.
Stylist: A designer of, or consultant on, styles in decorating, dress or beauty. A stylist is most often employed for advertisements.

The Scoop

Among fashion jobs, buying is arguably the most intense, tiring and rewarding. Many buyers claim that "previous store experience is an asset," since it helps them understand the consumer. Other buyers, however, believe that retail experience is not paramount. "If you're going to be a buyer at Macy's or Lord & Taylor," suggests an insider, "it's not necessary to have store experience because they will train you anyway." One contact suggests that an inexperienced Macy's trainee can become a buyer in only three to five years.

While department stores offer the benefit of systematic training, specialty stores often operate on a different track. At Polo, relates another insider, "you may have ten people running the whole show," suggests a source. "That means one buyer and one assistant buyer making all the decisions. At a private designer you do a lot more right from the beginning -- but just how much is dependent upon your boss." In general, smaller companies assign buyers a wider ranger of responsibilities. On the other hand, buying jobs at department stores "are known to be less creative and more analytical."

In buying, the job progression goes from assistant buyer to associate buyer and, finally, to buyer. Buyers often come from computer, math, economics or business backgrounds. They differ from traditional fashion professionals in that they often prefer analytical skills over creativity. Perhaps a buyer's most vital assets are math skills, negotiation abilities, a forthright personality and management and organizational skills. Buyers tend to have a working knowledge of mark-ups and markdowns, gross margins, inventory control and turnover relationships, merchandise plans and vendor relations, along with other general accounting. Explains one buyer: "The buyer is, in many senses, an entrepreneur. Both my assistant and I must be able to communicate effectively. We must be able to speak up and to think on our feet."

On the road

Marketing is one function of a buyer's job; analysis and store visitations are others. A background in retail comes in handy with store visits. Buyers must pay attention to how their company's merchandise is being displayed, what colors and sizes are available and where and how other competitors' merchandise is displayed. Since most major brands offer locations throughout the U.S., it is not unusual for a buyer to spend substantial time on the road. Frequent travel, combined with rigorous hours, makes buying an exhausting profession. "Buyers have to go to stores on the weekends. They need a pulse about what's going on in the 'real world.' Buyers also visit stores on holidays, especially around Christmas." All that traveling inspires not only fatigue, but also high turnover. After several years, many a burnt-out buyer will move to another, less time-intensive job within the fashion industry.

Collaboration

Buyers frequently collaborate with other groups within merchandising. As such, weekly meetings with the whole merchandizing department are the norm. The department may discuss upcoming sales, new strategies or targeted goals. Explains one buyer, "For Memorial Day weekend, we might discuss which merchandise will go on sale. We'll talk about the possibilities of a combined sale and how best to promote our goods in order to achieve our overall sales target." Buyers are trying to make not only their individual sales targets, but also the sales targets of the entire company. This dual aim leads to intense pressure that motivates some buyers and drains others. "My company holds its buyers accountable for its plans and sales targets. I'm always aware that my actions can make or break the company as a whole," confesses one buyer. "The pressure doesn't abate month to month because if I don't make my sales target, then the CEO has to go back to the shareholders and explain why." He concludes, "You don't get to a buyer position unless you understand the rules and play the game well."

Many buyers also experience what are known as Open Buy Weekends; these generally take place once a month. Open Buy Weekends offer a forum for all major company representatives. Buyers approach Open Buy Weekends by preparing reports on sales and revenue. Shares a buyer: "I'll go to the meeting and say that I'm either on target, overbought or underbought. If I'm over- or underbought, I'll need to explain why. Often, the managers are already aware of the possibility of underperforming sales. However, if the problem comes as a surprise, that's very bad. I may have to cancel an order from a vendor. I may even lose my job because, in essence, I'm playing with the company's money."

Filed Under: Job Search


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