Whether the buyer is someone who works for a small independent operation, a department store with branches, a chain organization with numerous units, a catalog operation, an Internet- based company, or a home shopping outlet, several duties and responsibilities need to be performed. Of course, the nature and size of each organization dictates exactly what will be required as part of the buyer’s routine. Collectively, the following provides an overview of the major activities that the buyer performs.
1. Merchandise Selection
Of primary importance to any retail operation, no matter how large or small, is the selection of the merchandise to be resold to consumers. The merchandise must be suited to the needs of customers in terms of price, quality, and individual tastes. Not only must the buyer be able to select from everything that is available the merchandise that has the most potential for resale and profit, but he or she must carefully plan the purchases. This planning includes determining what will be bought, deciding on the quantities of each item, selecting resources, and determining the appropriate time for the merchandise to be available to the shoppers.
2. Extensive Travel
For many years, regional markets were the mainstay for buyers of every type of merchandise. Whether it was the fashion buyer who headed for New York City’s Garment Center, the largest market in the United States for ready-to-wear, or Chicago’s Apparel Mart for the same type of merchandise, or the food buyer who purchased from vendors all across America, purchasing was generally accomplished on domestic soil.
Typically, buyers chose the venues closest to their homes, since, the manufacturers generally had representation in all of these markets. In addition to purchasing at America’s vendor showrooms, many buyers frequented the trade expositions to view the lines and write their orders. These visits are more important than ever because the buyer’s time is often limited and many lines can be screened quickly, under one roof. Expos such as MAGIC in Las Vegas—the largest for the menswear industry—and NAMSB in New York City—the second largest menswear show—attract tens of thousands of buyers each time they are in session. Others of importance include The International Boutique Show and Kid’s Show, both also in the United States.
With such a vast assortment of vendor collections, one might wonder why today’s buyers are circling the globe several times a year to make their purchases. Whether it is clothing, accessories, home furnishings, or foods, buyers are always looking for merchandise from new places.
A number of factors contribute to this worldwide exploration, including lower wholesale prices, goods that are unavailable in domestic markets, prestigious fashion collections that are on the forefront of design, and so forth. Thus buying might require trips to the Asian markets, the European fashion capitals, and even some third-world nations where merchandise may be acquired for very little money.
Overseas travel is generally restricted to major retailers who have both the financial resources to sponsor such trips and the buying potential to warrant such expenditures.
3. Advertising, Promotion, Visual Merchandising, and Publicity
The major retailers have in-house advertising and promotion staffs who produce all of the advertising for newspapers, television, magazines, and catalogs; special events; and visual presentations aimed to capture the shopper’s attention.
These staffs have the responsibility to develop and produce all of the ads and commercials for the company, either by themselves or sometimes with the assistance of an advertising agency, to create special events, and to develop and install visual presentations in windows and interiors. In many of these operations, however, the buyer also plays an important role. While the promotional team has the expertise to create the projects, they have little knowledge of merchandising. Who is better qualified than the buyer to select the specific items to be advertised or featured in displays? He or she knows what is hot, the selling points that should be stressed, and anything else that would bring positive results to the company.
4. Communicating with the Merchandise Departments
Independent retailers with just one store communicate with their staffs on a daily basis and quickly acquire information that could be helpful to future buying plans. Buyers who have merchandising responsibilities for numerous stores in a vast geographical region, however, cannot visit them regularly. Since, feedback from the various people who interact with the customers on a regular basis is imperative, it is necessary to have a plan that provides for communication with them. By establishing such a plan, the buyers are able to feel the pulse of their departments throughout the organization. In this way, they can better serve the needs of their clientele.
The focus of these buyers’ attention is with both in-store department managers and sales associates. These are the individuals who learn firsthand such important pieces of information as what types of goods the shoppers are looking for that are not on the selling floor. The store’s records quickly tell the buyers which merchandise are selling quickly and which items are slow sellers, but not the merchandise that is being sought by the shoppers that is not in stock. Only some sort of direct communication will provide such information. Some of the ways in which this exchange of information is generated are discussed below.
In some of the larger organizations, the buyers determine which branches or units are the best barometers to gather firsthand merchandising information that will improve purchasing. By selecting one or two stores that are typical of the others in the group, the buyer can make routine visits and use the information gathered to plan for all of the stores that are his or her responsibility.
Example: At Belk, buyers based in one of the regional offices make regular visits to their major units in the malls to meet with department managers and sales associates. They also carefully check interior displays of merchandise and make suggestions as to how and where they would like certain styles featured. By merely moving an item from one floor location to another, sales of that product could improve. No amount of telephoning or other communication method could possibly afford such information.
Of course, daily telephone calls are the order of the day between the buyer and the selling-floor personnel. These are generated either by the buyer or the department manager. A buyer might want to know what kind of sales activity is taking place during a special promotion or how shoppers are reacting to new merchandise. The department manager might want to inquire about the availability of certain merchandise that is out of stock or offer advice on possible reorders. The telephone provides quick interaction.
The fax has offered an opportunity for buyers and sellers to communicate in yet another timely fashion. It doesn’t take the department managers away from their selling floor responsibilities as does the telephone. It also may be used to forward a visual document to or from the buyer.
Example: If the buyer wishes to have merchandise placed on a display fixture in a certain manner, a picture of this would eliminate any confusion. The use of the telephone in such a situation might not clearly deliver the message.
The emergence of e-mail has added yet another dimension to the communication effort. Instant messages or questions that require immediate responses can be delivered to the stores by the buyer. With most retailers having a wealth of computer terminals throughout the store, quick decision making can take place. More and more buyers are using this communication technique.
One of the more important parts of a buyer’s job is to make certain that when new merchandise arrives at the store, the department managers and sales associates are aware of the item’s selling points. Such factors as fabrication advantages and price competitiveness often help to make the sale. While this type of communication is helpful at any time during a season, it is at the beginning of a new season that it is extremely important. At Dayton-Hudson, the buyers present the highlights of the new merchandise that is headed for the selling floor on closed circuit TV. The buyer shows each item and discusses its selling features. It might be the new colors for the season, a fabric that will launder easily without the necessity of ironing, or a silhouette that has the potential to become a winner.
Some stores are taking this method of communication even further by offering an interactive approach. Not only may the buyer make his or her presentation, but questions and responses may be exchanged between the buyer and the department managers.
Some major retailers have used special information days during which the buyers, store managers, department managers, and sales associates meet to provide an orientation about new merchandise. Such presentations may take place at in-house facilities or outside venues. While this has been successful, it does take a great deal of planning and often a good deal of expense, especially if the presentation arena is away from the store’s premises. In its place, the in-house video has proven effective as well as cost efficient.
5. Department Management
In the early 1900s, major retailers subscribed to an organizational structure known as the Mazur Plan. It was a four-division approach to managing a retail operation that had merchandising as one of its divisions. In this plan, the buyer was responsible not only for purchasing, but also for the management of the selling floor and the sales associates. While this worked satisfactorily when there was perhaps a main or flagship store and one or two branches, it didn’t work as well when the stores started to expand. Buyers were just too busy with other chores to take care of the daily requirements of department management. In the vast majority of retail organizations, department management is no longer the responsibility of the buyer. In small operations, however, where the buyer is housed within the store, this type of arrangement still exists.
Reassigning some of these duties and responsibilities to other individuals frees the buyer to spend more time on merchandising matters.
6. Setting a Schedule
When one examines the many different tasks performed each and every day by the buyer, it is obvious that only careful planning will enable him or her to perform in a productive manner. With responsibilities such as merchandise acquisition, pricing considerations, extensive travel to wholesale markets, meetings with market specialists, and so forth, a working schedule must be established to do the job.
It should be noted that even the best-planned schedule doesn’t address some unforeseen situations. Thus the schedule, while carefully executed, must allow for these unusual occurrences.
The plan should address all of the different duties and responsibilities of the buyer, which may include:
- How many hours are typical of the work week?
- The number of people for whom there is direct supervision, such as assistant buyers, and how much time is spent with them in meetings.
- What responsibility, if any, there is on the selling floor? In some major retail organizations, the buyers are expected to sell during peak periods such as the day after Thanks, givings until Christmas Eve.
- The size of the department in terms of “dollar” and “unit volumes”.
- The distance of the wholesale markets from the store’s headquarters and whether it is domestic or foreign buying or a combination of both.
- How much responsibility there is for involvement with advertising, special events, and visual merchandising?
- The need to interact with staff personnel such as a fashion director or comparison shopper.
- Once these factors have been considered, the buyer must arrange a schedule on a priority basis, leaving some “breathing time” for the unexpected.