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How to get a job in buying

The skills you need to get a graduate job in buying, by buyers

David Byron and Sophia Jolly share their stories and tips for success on how they made their careers as buyers with TK Maxx.

You have to be comfortable with taking calculated and intelligent risks – if you don’t challenge the norm, you’ll never learn.

David studied commerce at National University of Ireland, Galway followed by a masters in marketing at University College Dublin, before going on to complete the TK Maxx graduate scheme. He then moved into the position of buyer of sunglasses and watches. Sophia had been in the industry for 23 years and worked her way up to the position of buyer of gold label and contemporary womenswear when we spoke to her.

What are your tips for graduates applying for buying jobs?

David says: ‘You need to decide what sort of buying you’d like to do. There can be significant differences between the buying styles at different organisations; for example some roles involve buying products months in advance of going to sale whereas we’re more stock-based, buying and stocking new items every week. Some roles could involve dealing with the fabrics rather than the finished products and others might require some specialist knowledge. I was very clear on my reasons for joining TK Maxx and why I wanted to be a buyer – I think the recruiters could see how much research I’d done on the role. It’s important that candidates know what they see themselves doing.

‘You should also research the companies you’re applying to. I found out more about the corporation and visited stores so I had formed an opinion on the products, the stores and the market in general that I could talk about in the interview.

'I also looked into the routes into buying that came with the different retailers: with the TK Maxx graduate scheme, I was an analyst first, then an assistant merchandiser before becoming a buyer. Going from merchandising to buying is not the normal route but it suited me well because I learned about all the different parts of the business.’

What type of person makes a great buyer?

Sophia says: ‘Buying is dictated by what the customer wants, the new brands, the market and the trends. You have to spot and react to the most exciting opportunities that may spring from nowhere, so being versatile and flexible is very important. You have to be able to balance long-term and short-term goals and juggle many different projects at the same time.

We buyers are resilient and passionate. Buying is all about finding the most beautiful, exciting and compelling product to entice the customer, but it’s not always as glamorous as people think – it can be demanding, with hard work with long hours. You have to work until the job is done and when you’re up at 4.00 am to catch a flight or in a hot, dusty warehouse with no air conditioning, it’s tough!

‘If you have any experience to show these attributes, make the most of it in the application process. It could be running a project or working in a fast-paced environment with multiple, varying demands or taking responsibility for tasks outside of your day-to-day role. Discuss the processes you went through in that role and what you achieved. Show that you can make decisions, cope with changes and challenges, and come up with exciting ideas.’

What other personal skills are essential for a career in buying?

Sofia says: ‘You have to be comfortable with taking calculated and intelligent risks – if you don’t challenge the norm, you’ll never learn. Some of the risks that I’ve taken have taught me the most. You need bags of confidence, natural curiosity and to trust your gut feeling because it is a really challenging area of retail – you have to really believe in what you’re doing.

You need to be a good communicator too because you have to influence other people and explain quickly and concisely why your ideas are important. Equally, being a good listener is important, as is having the emotional intelligence to connect with others at all levels.

‘Think about times when you’ve taken risks or had to influence others who may have been strangers. Remember that the examples you use in an interview or application form can come from any part of your life, such as starting university or going travelling – you’re not restricted to discussing work experience.’

What does a graduate career in buying involve?

David says: ‘From the start of the graduate scheme, as an analyst, I was given a department and was responsible for forecasting sales and arranging shipping. Now I’m constantly out buying from the vendor base of brands that I work with and I look for new brands each week. 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. Buyers can get involved with marketing, packaging and loss prevention, visiting the stores or dealing with the legal team and suppliers so you can have a lot of control, plus you have to drive your own business, so there is a high level of responsibility. You need to be entrepreneurial and use your initiative. I would advise any applicants to show examples of when they have been entrepreneurial and thought ‘outside the box’, this could have been in a part-time job, university project or something they took on on their own such as starting a fashion blog.’

What qualifications and experience do graduates need for a career in buying?

David says: ‘Graduates don’t need any specific qualifications. The group I joined with was really varied – there were people with degrees in English literature and geography as well as people like me from marketing and business. The levels of experience were really varied too. A lot of people had experience in retail, such as a part-time job. Both my parents are in retail so from a young age I was in stores, going to trade shows and selecting products. What we all had in common was that we could show, through our experiences, that we were genuinely interested in retail.’

Sophia says: ‘Any experience that a candidate can get will help, whether it’s an internship or a weekend job. That being said, a lot of buying comes down to your personality, your inquisitive nature and your can-do attitude so if you go into the application process with the right attitude, those inherent ways of working will help you stand out.’

What technical knowledge do buyers need?

Sophia says: ‘As international buyers, we need to understand our markets and their similarities and differences. What resonates in one market might not work in another and what the customer wants is constantly changing, so we need to be ahead of the curve. Buyers build up their good judgement based on the  knowledge that we gain from visiting the trade shows, talking to vendors who are experts in their fields, travelling the world and communicating with the our colleagues across Europe.

You can start building up this knowledge by keeping your eyes open when you’re out shopping, reading magazines, following retailers on social media, speaking to people in the industry and questioning everything you see. Get involved in the retail industry in every way you can.’