The new skillsets of the super-buyers
Buyers are faced with the almost Herculean task of pleasing an increasingly demanding and fickle shopper. Faced with a buffet of choice from a variety of retailers and brands, today’s shopper is trend hungry, price conscious and armed with more information than ever before.
Against a backdrop of seismic change in the retail industry, the role of the buyer is becoming ever more complex. All of the buyers Drapers spoke to for this feature, from across the fashion industry, stressed that the pace of the job is ratcheting up as retailers try and keep step with customers’ changing demands. As a result, today’s buyer must be increasingly resilient, able to juggle several projects at one time and constantly on the lookout for new opportunities.
“Trends come and go so quickly now – some in the matter of a few weeks – so buyers really have to be constantly thinking one step ahead,” explains Debbie Taylor, who spent two decades working in the buying department at Selfridges, and now leads the buying and merchandising course at the Fashion Retail Academy.
“There’s the pressure of doing so many different jobs within one role, such as thinking about how the product will look on the shop floor, building a close connection with the end customer and assessing what the digital shopper is looking for. Buyers are working harder and faster because there’s no seasonality any more: collections are dropping all the time and you’re dealing with so many critical paths.
“You’ve got to be able to take that pressure, understand that you’re going to have to take risks and hit that sweet spot for trends – which isn’t easy, because everything’s so fast. Buyers today need to be real chameleons.”
The changing fashion industry means buyers must have an innate understanding of their target market and be able to forecast upcoming trends faster than the competition. Buyers must be able to look ahead and understand where their market is going, as well as analysing data closely to know what has and has not worked for their customers.
“There’s still a heavy requirement for extensive experience and expertise within a particular product category but there’s also an increasing need for buyers to have an inherent brightness, and a holistic understanding of digital technology and business sectors that align closely with fashion – such as music, health and celebrity,” explains Harveen Gill, managing director at recruitment consultancy HGA Group.
“Buyers now have to be curious and always be ahead of the curve. They also need to be an inspirational leader and a role model across different generations in the workforce, whether it is Generation Z or millennials.”
A menswear buyer at one luxury retailer adds: “The fundamentals of the role are the same, in that buyers have to place bets on good products, but you’ve got to be a lot more reactive. It’s less about what has sold in the past and more about what will sell in the future, because everything is changing so quickly.”
Julia Redman, head of buying for menswear, kidswear and homeware at value retailer M&Co, agrees: “The role of the buyer is changing dramatically all the time, particularly the pace at which we work. You’ve got to be able to react almost immediately and that has a huge impact on the role – it means buyers have to be able to keep on top of several critical paths at once and cope with the added stress.”
Redman believes buyers increasingly need to be entrepreneurs in their own right, constantly on the lookout for new ways to add value to the overall business: “The whole problem solving and creative thinking side of the role is much more important now. Buyers always have to be looking for new ways to attract customers, particularly as the high street is stagnating slightly.
“You’ve got to be able to stand out from the crowd to get that customer to part with their money. You need an entrepreneurial mindset and be able to think outside the norm. Some buyers are having to learn a whole new set of skills late in their career – such as identifying potential new revenue streams – which is a challenge for some.”
Her thoughts are echoed by Amy Parsons, established buyer at high street retailer Dorothy Perkins, who believes a good buyer also needs to keep abreast of wider economic trends: “Being one step ahead is so important. There’s a lot less administration now, because of the technology we have and the really good systems we have in place, so the role is much more about looking at how you can drive the business forward and create additional growth by recognising new opportunities.”
She adds that buyers must also increasingly think about catering to a global customer: “[Most] companies are global now and it’s not just about UK bricks-and-mortar. You have to accommodate different markets around the world and have a global head on. When range building, it’s not just about what someone in Manchester wants to wear. It was an exciting job, even when you were just buying for the UK, but the global aspect has made it even more exciting.”