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Not just an excuse for shopaholics to indulge their passion, buying is an intense and varied retail role that demands a good grasp of logic, numeracy and long-term strategy.

As a buyer, your decisions are vitally important to the business: even the most well-known companies can run into trouble if their buyers get the products wrong.

What is buying?

Retail is a product-led business and it is essential that products match the needs, desires and aspirations of consumers. This is where buying comes in. Buyers are the people responsible for sourcing, selecting, developing, and introducing new and existing product ranges that suit their stores and customer base. As a buyer, your decisions are vitally important to the business: even the most well-known companies can run into trouble if their buyers get the products wrong. You must have a strong sense of what will be popular with shoppers.

What do buyers do?

During a typical day a buyer could be managing stock levels, pitching ideas or producing reports and forecasts to present to senior management. As David Byron, a buyer for TK Maxx, told us, ‘A lot of people seem to think we just go out, buy products, send them to the store and that’s it, but the process is actually much more complex.’ Much of the work revolves around analysis, so most days will begin with checking sales data from the day before, and reviewing what is working and what is not. This is crucial in helping to decide what products or product ranges to buy in the future. Buyers need to think ahead, often making decisions months in advance of when the products will be needed to ensure that they are available for the consumer on time.

Selecting and developing products is a key part of the role. Buyers tend to form close ties with suppliers and work with them to develop products that suit their store’s customers. It is also vital that buyers are aware of what suppliers are developing from the outset. Senior buyers will often be required to visit factories and carry out ethical checks to ensure they are not using enforced or unlawful labour. Knowing the suppliers and the products in close detail is often key for setting the company apart from the competition, which is a crucial and often difficult aspect of the job; you have to be on trend, but in a different way to everyone else.

As well as staying in good communication with suppliers, buyers need to liaise with colleagues and other teams within the retailer in order to make the best decisions. A buyer in charge of men’s shirts, for example, would need to stay in close contact with the buyer responsible for men’s ties. Working in partnership with the design and merchandising teams is also a necessity. Buyers and designers usually work together to develop products that the customer wants. Once a buyer has chosen the products they think the retailer should sell, merchandisers will decide how many of each product will go into particular stores. They all collaborate to make sure each store offers customers the products they want and that those products are readily available.

The nature of the buying role will very much depend on the business you work for – you could buy for a particular line (dresses in a clothes store, for example), for a department, a whole store or even a whole chain. Larger retailers such as supermarkets offer the opportunity to specialise in a particular product area, from children’s clothes to wines and foodstuffs.

What degree background and qualifications do I need for a graduate job in buying?

The requirements for graduate or entry-level roles in buying vary from employer to employer. Some may not specify a degree subject or classification, but others might. TJX (the business that owns TK Maxx) doesn’t ask for a specific degree classification or subject, while Lidl asks that candidates for their graduate buying roles have a minimum 2.2 degree in any subject. Do your research and make sure you know what each employer wants before you apply.

There are also postgraduate courses in buying (sometimes buying and merchandising). However, a postgraduate qualification is rarely a necessity.

Key skills for graduate jobs in buying

  • Excellent commercial awareness
  • An understanding and knowledge of trends
  • An entrepreneurial mind-set
  • Organisational skills and the ability to think ahead
  • Strong analytical skills
  • The ability to communicate effectively at all levels
  • Initiative and decision-making skills.

Graduate schemes in buying

Securing a place on a retailer’s graduate scheme is a popular way to enter a career in buying and this is typically an area with plenty of graduate schemes, when compared with other areas of retail.

Graduates will normally be based in a central head office. However, some retailers place graduates in store or at a regional distribution centre for part of their graduate scheme. Graduate trainees often work across several product ranges in order to become familiar with the variety of products.

Following the completion of a graduate scheme, it is likely that graduates will take on the role of assistant buyer or one similar. Beyond that, the positions a graduate may move through as they gain experience include junior buyer, buyer and senior buyer, although job titles will vary between employers.

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