Retail Buying 101: A snapshot

How do you keep up with the trends to provide merchandise what your customers want? I can't highlight enough how important it is for retailers, and all businesses, to understand their customers.

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Being a buyer for a retailer is an exciting, but challenging job. Deciding what merchandise to carry isn't always easy. To know what blend of basic merchandise (the products a business is always going to have in stock) and fashion merchandise (colours, shapes, sizes, based on trends and constantly changing) is not common sense. Buyers and merchandising managers need to have a vision that reflects the overall goals and brand of a business, focusing on what their customers want. 

When deciding what products your retail store should carry, a buyer needs to determine if s/he wants to offer soft lines (apparel, and home accessories like towels, sheets, table cloths) or hard lines products (sporting goods, furniture, toys, outdoor products). Some retailers carry a mix of soft and hard line products and their merchandising strategy is dividing products into categories (think department stores) to distinguish the varities. Speciality stores sell one specific product line to meet the needs of one particular segment, I am sure many of you have your favourite speciality store. I love More than Half in Kitchener, a store dedicated to Fair Trade products, with soft line products like organic cotton tights and ULLO sweaters. 

Buying for a retail organization is a complex role, and there are many different areas that need to be tackled properly to ensure efficiency in a retail organization. Mazur plan, developed in 1927 by Paul M. Mazur, recommended that there be four-functions in every retail stores such as control, promotion, operations and merchandizing. Buyers need to understand their job in relation to the other functional departments in a retail organization, and this is a valuable part of having a clear vision that represents the business and the customers. 

If buyers don't have direct contact with customers, how can they make better merchandise selections? First off, management needs to clearly communicate their overall objectives, performance metrics and sales targets throughout the organization. A clear brand and marketing objectives need to be in place, with a well defined target market and a clean segmentation. Target marketing needs to go deeper than just demographic, psychographic, behaviouristic and geographic data; an analysis needs to illustrate lifestyle of customers. Management should also communicate who the direct competitors are, so that a buyer knows what's selling well in a segment and that there is an opportunity to offer unique merchandise. Once this is done, a buyer can start looking at trends in the industry and market.

A buyer needs to determine what is going to sell a year out from now, so understanding the customer is a must. A buyer needs to communicate frequently with retail store managers and sales associates if s/he is not able to go onto the floor to talk to customers directly. A buyer also has to anticipate a customers needs for the next year, through looking into major trends and events. For example, if the Olympics or World Cup is coming up, a buyer can be sure national colours or merchandise will be popular in certain seasons. If the weather is predicted to be particularly cold with a significant amount of snow, a buyer will have to buy warmer clothes or the proper tools to deal with the snow, and in larger quantities. 

Looking into trends is also important. Keeping up to date on fashion weeks, trade shows and associations predictions in various industries gives greater insight. This can be done by going online, to events, or even subscribing to trend reporters like WSGN. Buyers can also look at social media and see what is trending within the target market and get immediate customer feedback by sharing the retailers potential products, this can help determine order quantities. 

A buyer can get management and a business excited about the products they choose by indicating the profit margins of each product and the overall profit margins for the mix. By demonstrating there is demand for the chosen products backed up by research (trends, sales managers, trending social media) for a specified target market, this will in turn excite the merchandising managers.  In addition, a diversified mix of basics and fashion products that offers a range of costs and mark-ups, a buyer can decrease the overall risk of a product category but still buy the more risky high fashion piece that will create buzz around a brand. 

Ultimately, a buyer needs to be able to see the full picture from the business and customer perspective, while consider the external environment and seasonal trends. 

Until next time!

Light & love,