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Retailer Insight: Why the role of the buyer has changed so much

Julia Redman, head of buying for menswear, kidswear and homeware at value retailer M&Co, explains how the role of the buyer has evolved over her 25-year career.

The role of the retail buyer has evolved and developed in ways I could never have imagined when I took my first steps on the career ladder, more than 25 years ago. Back then, communication took place by fax, phone and post, and as a buyers’ assistant at BHS, I distinctly remember queueing among my peers to fax out orders that had been typed up on carbon copy paper by the divisional secretary.

New technology and methods of communication have revolutionised the way we work. In todays’ buying office, email, video conference, Skype and WhatsApp are the ways we communicate. Mobile phones, tablets and laptops mean we are now contactable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and have contributed to the high-pressure, fast-decision culture that we now find ourselves working in. Fashion trends break, peak and die faster than ever before. With retailers such as Zara now able to deliver on a lead time of two to three weeks, and competition for customer spend being so fierce, this is not a career for the fainthearted – it never has been.

Today’s retail buyer must be a strategist capable of developing worldwide supplier relationships

Consumer behaviour is another other key factor that is generating change. Our customers have new technology at their fingertips that lets them to buy on the move, at any time of day or night, from almost anywhere in the world. We all lead increasingly busy lives and leisure time is precious, creating a necessity for retailers to offer a more enjoyable, experiential environment, and to reinvent the physical act of “shopping”. Etailers such as Asos and Amazon are rapidly gaining market share, offering opportunities such as delivery within the hour, free delivery and returns, and try before you buy. This increases the likelihood that customers will purchase, despite the fact they might not be able to touch, feel or try on in an actual store.

Such changes have had many implications for buyers – not least the impact on employment and career prospects. With the struggle to maintain sales and profits in a market where some multichannel retailers are struggling, many are reducing the size of their teams to minimise costs and demanding more from those who remain. Today’s retail buyer must be multi-skilled, a multi-tasker, a social media-savvy marketeer, a product developer, a negotiator, a problem-solver, a communicator, a sourcing specialist, a creator, a mathematician and a strategist capable of developing worldwide supplier relationships, and increasingly, developing ecommerce or international capability and experience.

The strongest buyers also have a broad knowledge and understanding of worldwide political, economic, social and environmental issues, ethical concerns and practices, and a compassionate understanding of the cultural differences in the regions they are buying from. The most effective buyers have always had many of these skills – it is the pace at which they employ them that is changing.

Nothing benefits these relationships as much as face-to-face discussion

The way retailers interact with their supply chain also continues to evolve. Most big high street retailers prefer direct sourcing to minimise costs, so their buyers travel to meet with factory owners, designers and development teams. It is an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the way those factories operate, and how best to build, develop and collaborate to achieve long-term success, for all parties involved. It does not matter how much technology moves on – nothing benefits these relationships as much as face-to-face discussion. Smaller retailers must be more creative and adept at developing supplier relationships, visiting frequently, offering better payment terms and compensating for smaller line buys by increasing the number of options with each supplier.

A modern-day buyer has to be something of a chameleon, prepared to change their way of working to suit the product type and the retailer they are working for. To survive, every buyer needs to understand how to develop product which will differentiate them from the competition. Being a buyer is equally as challenging, exciting and interesting as it always has been: it requires passion and dedication, and will never be a nine to five role. Flexibility, tenacity and an acceptance that things will change on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, are key, but above all, honesty and integrity are crucial – reputation is everything.

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