What are the personal qualifications, qualities, and abilities of a buyer?

At one time in retailing, stories were told of individuals who started out on the lowest rung of the ladder, such as a stock clerk, and eventually rose to become a buyer, or sometimes even to the level of top management. While these stories are wonderful to relate, this is no longer typical of the industry. Today’s buying hopefuls must possess leadership, management, and decision-making skills to meet the challenges of the career.

A substantial number of interviews with buyers, merchandise managers, and directors of human resources in many different retail classifications, in many parts of the country, revealed that a wealth of personal qualifications, qualities, and abilities are necessary for a successful buying career. Those questioned included both large and small store merchants. Their responses generally included the following qualifications, qualities, and abilities.

1. Education

A college education is considered a must for a buying career. While some individuals may possess many of the other necessary qualifications, few buying hopefuls will be considered for such a career without the formal education.

Retailers desire the best college-educated personnel they can find. Generally, those sought after have majored in retail business management, marketing, business administration, or fashion merchandising. Courses such as merchandising, mathematics, computer use, accounting, selling, psychology, and those that include units on product information are considered essential by those who make the ultimate hiring decisions. Although the business-oriented student is generally preferred, retailers do consider liberal arts graduates who show an interest in retailing and a desire to pursue a buying career.

In order to understand the many different reports and financial statements that come across the buyer’s desk on a regular basis, such as inventory analysis summaries, open-to-buy positions, active seller positions, unit sales summaries, and others, a mastery of quantitative analysis is a must. Except for the rarest cases, this ability can be acquired only through formal education.

The question of how much formal education is needed to achieve the level of buyer is often debated. Is a two-year associate’s degree sufficient? Is a bachelor’s degree a must? Or is a master’s degree even better? In the major department stores that have executive training programs, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree is generally required. Some even seek those who have graduate business degrees. Many chain organizations will accept associate-degreed graduates for their training programs and eventually promote them to assistant buyers and eventually buyers.

There are a great number of major retailers who will hire the two-year graduates and offer them tuition reimbursement for part-time study so that they can acquire their baccalaureates. There is no absolute educational formula. Those with the ambition and a limited educational background might enter a retail organization and demonstrate in lesser jobs that they have the practical knowledge and desire for upward mobility. Sometimes this track will eventually lead to a buying career.

2. Enthusiasm

When two candidates for employment offer similar credentials in terms of education and experience, the enthusiastic candidate is more likely to be hired. It is generally agreed that someone who aspires to become a buyer and will interact with assistant buyers, department managers, and sales associates should have an enthusiastic attitude to motivate them in their jobs. This enthusiasm could then transfer to the shoppers who are looking to make purchases. It might not be considered a qualification, but perhaps an important quality.

3. Analytical Excellence

With decision making always present in the buyer’s daily routine, analytical ability is a must. Should we buy the safe basic colors of the season, or should we buy the fashion colors? Should a new price point be added to the inventory, or should I stay with the price points that have proven to generate the most sales in the past? Should the items that have sold well be advertised, or should newer, more exciting styles be promoted in the newspaper? Should some of the promotional dollars be spent on television commercials, or should the newspaper get all of the budgeted advertising allocation? These are just some of the questions that require buyer analysis. Only analytical excellence will help measure and evaluate situations and trends necessary for sound decision making.

4. Ability to Articulate

Buyers, by the very nature of the job, are continuously interacting with people. When visiting vendors to evaluate new lines and make their merchandise selections, they must be able to articulate the terms in their negotiations. When speaking with their superiors, such as divisional merchandise managers, in the hope of acquiring a larger purchasing budget, communications skills are essential. They must be able to communicate with their assistants in a meaningful and knowledgeable manner so that the assistants will be able to carry out delegated responsibilities. The ability to articulate with department managers and sales associates will help give them a better understanding of new merchandise and how to handle questions from the shoppers to whom they hope to sell.

A buyer’s communication skills should be not only of a verbal but also of a written nature. With the buyer often based in corporate headquarters away from the selling floors, or visiting foreign arenas where a wealth of purchases are now made, written communication is extremely important. Information regarding a particular style or inventory level can quickly be obtained through faxing or by e-mail. When clearly and concisely spelled out, the response will surely contain the desired information.

5. Product Knowledge

How could a buyer make merchandise purchasing decisions without the necessary product information? New technology has significantly expanded vendor offerings, and only the educated can satisfactorily evaluate them.

A good starting point for gaining product knowledge is by taking classes offered in many colleges. Many offer apparel and accessories courses that detail the language of the trade and detail construction techniques, silhouette explanations, and technical information on textiles and nontextile fabrications. Other courses feature information needed by home furnishings buyers, such as materials used in the products, furniture periods, color comprehension, and so forth. Still other courses are geared for those who purchase hard goods and feature information about appliances and furniture.

In addition to formal college instruction, a wealth of information can be acquired through discussions with merchandise managers, trips to factories, meetings with market representatives, interaction with vendors, and reading trade journals.

With all of the merchandise changes being offered in most product classifications, it is essential that the buyer update his or her knowledge on a regular basis. Only then will he or she be able to help maximize profits.

6. Objectivity

When you purchase for your own needs, the ultimate selection is based purely on what makes you happy. For professional purchasers to follow this approach would be disastrous for the company.

For example, a female buyer, with the responsibility to buy dresses cannot gauge each style by her personal preferences. While the dress in question might satisfy her own needs, the selection could be inappropriate for her customers. Similarly, a male buyer for men’s apparel cannot purchase items that seem appropriate for his personal needs unless they fit into the model stock that has been preplanned.

Objectivity must prevail. Choices must be made keeping in mind the wishes of the customers that have been reflected by past sales records, consultations with market representatives, trade paper forecasts, and other objective resources. If this rule is not followed, the store’s shelves are apt to be left with merchandise the customers have rejected.

7. Knowledge of the Market

In order to make certain that the best possible merchandise will be chosen for the store’s clientele, the buyer must know about all of the possible resources from which purchases may be made. Not only must they know where the best deals may be made, but they must be able to assess which vendors will deliver the goods on time (many are notorious for late shipments), which will deliver goods exactly like the samples, and which have the best production capabilities.

Although selection of the right products is extremely important, without the quality and time considerations the goods might not prove to be successful sellers.

8. Forecasting

One of the more difficult tasks that buyers face is predicting what direction the merchandise is taking. For purchasers of staple items such as appliances, food, athletic socks, and the like, there is little risk involved.

While past sales help in forecasting, as do the experts in the field such as the fashion forecasters, the buyer must have the ability to make his or her own judgments. Through continuous communication with in-store personnel such as store and department managers, fashion directors, and sales associates, the pulse of the customer can be felt. It is the customer who has particular likes and dislikes, and with this information, accurate forecasts are more likely to be made.

9. Dedication

Working long, irregular hours is typical for buyers. Unlike those who work 9-to-5 days, buyers cannot predict how long it will take to complete their obligations. During peak purchasing periods such as market week, a period when fashion buyers make purchases for the next season, and when in attendance at trade shows and expositions to see the new collections, the days are extremely long. When high-volume selling periods such as Christmas time might require working on the selling floor, there is no telling how many hours will be worked each day. The opening of a new branch could necessitate many hours making certain that the inventories are presented in the best possible arrangements on the selling floor and that displays are carefully set. Only those dedicated to the job and able to endure these long days will go on to be successful in their careers as buyers.

10. Appearance

Although presented at the end of this long list, a professional appearance is one quality without which a buyer may not be successful. Whether on the selling floor or for trips to vendor resources, the properly attired individual will make the best impression.

Proper grooming and dress give the buyer the edge in both of these situations. On the selling floor, the buyer will serve as a role model for assistant buyers, department managers, and sales associates. When interacting with the store’s customers, the better-groomed individual will impart a positive image, and more than likely will help to gain the customers’ confidence.

Most of the major stores have a policy on proper dress so that a uniform image will be projected by the buyers both in the store and in the wholesale markets.

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