It isn't just $hopping: Retail buyers have to do a lot of analysis and numbers-crunching

March 14, 2005

"I can't think of one thing [I don't like about my job]," said Demmary, whose title is merchandise manager. "For my personality, it's a great fit. But some people may not like how detailed you have to be, and how much computer work there is. I've heard other salespeople say, 'How can you stare at that spreadsheet all day?' But if you don't like to work the numbers and be at the computer a lot, you wouldn't like it."

Demmary's job is a good example of how retail buying has changed over the years. "Buying has become a much more analytical job," said Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation.

A lot of young people think being a buyer just means going to fashion shows in Paris and shopping at merchandise markets, but the amount of analysis and desk time the job requires comes as a surprise to them, Butler said. "Buying is not shopping; it's a strategic element of the retail business and really requires a lot of understanding of the different stores in your company, what they need and the target customer."

And there aren't as many buying positions as there used to be. "Over the last 25 years, there's been a lot of consolidation in the retail industry, so buying jobs went away," Butler said. "There's also a trend toward centralized buying. In the past, you might have had buying teams around the country [for a large retail chain], but now they're all at the corporate office."

Nonetheless, there are still buying positions at locally based retailers.

Reis-Nichols' Demmary, 34, has a bachelor's degree in apparel merchandising and fashion design from Indiana University. She managed a fabric store for three years and then worked in fine jewelry for a department store for three years before joining Reis-Nichols, where she worked in sales for two years before being promoted to her current position.

Demmary travels for about five weeks a year, going to trade shows in cities such as New York, Las Vegas and Tucson, Ariz. Some vendors also come here.

"I like negotiating, analyzing the figures, figuring out where best to spend our money based on turn [the number of times a piece sells in a given period] and return on investment," she said. She also enjoys working on merchandise displays.

Demmary bases her buying decisions on what's hot in clothing fashions, trends, frequency of turn, etc. Her biggest challenge is stock forecasting: "trying to determine ahead of time how many you're going to sell in a certain period of time. A lot of products have a long lead time, and you have to decide how hot something is going to be and how many you'll need before the end of the season. You could be wrong and not have enough, or be stuck with too much inventory."

Stephanie Lindsay has similar challenges as the primary buyer of women's and children's shoes and handbags for the three local Stout's Shoes stores.

Lindsay, who also manages the downtown Stout's store, spends about 30 percent of her work hours on buying. She also spends a lot of her own time on it-working from home on her day off and traveling to the two big buying shows each year in Las Vegas, in addition to regional shows in between.

"The hardest thing is when you get back and you have all these wonderful vendors you've seen-you just want everything," she said. "You have to start picking and choosing. You have be very strict about the numbers."

Lindsay has a set amount she can spend in each category, such as women's dress shoes, etc. "We break down those categories to see how well we did the previous year and see what the trends are. That's how we base buying decisions."

Stout's also hires an independent inventory control company that tracks sales. Vendors, many of whom come here to meet with Stout's buyers, track sales as well.

Lindsay, 29, started her career with a bachelor's degree from Ball State University in English and a marketing minor. She had planned to work in advertising, which she did for a couple of years before taking a job with one of her accounts-Stout's. She had sold children's shoes while in college.

Lindsay said it can be frustrating when she spends hours putting numbers into the computer for new products, and then the inventory-control company says they didn't sell well. "The numbers don't lie, so you have to cancel some of the work you did."

But Lindsay loves it when she brings out a new line and it's very successful, and she enjoys the challenge of coming up with winners. She brought in the high-end Taryn Rose women's shoe line after she read the buzz about it. The shoes retail for $329 to $475 a pair. "We had never had a real high-end women's shoe line like that, and now we probably sell at least two or three pairs a week," she said.

As vice president and general manager of Kittle's Rooms Express, a division of Indianapolis-based Kittle's Furniture, Leslie Ireland buys all of the product on her showroom floors.

"I spend 70 percent of my time on buying and developing the visual concepts [marketing and putting together furniture groupings], and maybe 20 percent on store management," Ireland said.

She shops at large furniture markets in North Carolina twice a year and also visits markets in cities such as San Francisco. "We find the vendors we're going to partner with, and then they come here to present their wares," Ireland said. "We don't buy at the markets"

Ireland spends about 20 percent of her time traveling, because she also makes regional trips to the six Kittle's that display some of the products she buys, in addition to her own three Rooms Express stores.

Ireland, 49, likes the variety in her field. "Nothing ever stays the same, so you're trying to stay ahead of where you think everybody else is going to go."

It helps that she loves furniture, too. "It's like owning 20 homes, and you get to decorate them any way you want."

Her biggest challenge is finding quality product at a lower price. "There are hundreds of $599 sofas, and my challenge is to find the very best $599 sofa," she said.

Ireland started her career by training to be a flight attendant, but then she married and had a child. Once her child was out of kindergarten, she became an office manager for Kittle's and moved up through the retail ranks there. She was vice president of retail operations for 12 years before taking her current job.

For those who are interested in getting into buying, Ireland said you have to understand the store experience and the customer. "If you don't have that kind background, it's hard to make a lot of the right decisions."

Demmary of Reis-Nichols concurred. "It was helpful for me to be in sales first, because I understand what the customer is asking for and what the salesperson has to go through."

Lindsay of Stout's said the opportunity to become a buyer may not be obvious. She started her job as a store manager and when the owner let her try some buying, her success led to her current job.

Lindsay added that people have to be willing to put in the extra hours to stay on top of what's hot. But she thinks she has the best job in the world. "The bottom line to me is: it's shoes and handbags. It's a girl's dream job."
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