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Retail, buying and merchandising
A buyer might specialise in supermarket foodstuffs

Buying: area of work

A graduate job in buying is not just an excuse for shopaholics to indulge their passion. It is an intense and varied retail role that demands a good grasp of logic, numeracy and long-term strategy. Read on to discover more about what a career in buying involves.
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 which 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 also 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 also 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. Next, for example, suggests that a fashion-related degree would be of use for their trainee buyer position. TK Maxx doesn’t ask for a specific degree, but stresses that numerical and analytical skills are a must. Lidl asks that candidates for their graduate buying roles have a minimum 2.1 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 awareness of trends
  • An entrepreneurial mind-set
  • Brilliant organisational skills and the ability to think ahead
  • Strong analytical skills
  • The ability to communicate effectively at all levels
  • The ability to take the initiative and make decisions that involve an element of business risk

Graduate schemes in buying

Securing a place on a retailer’s graduate scheme is a popular way to enter a career in buying and there are usually a lot of graduate schemes in buying compared to some of the other areas of retail. For example, large retailers (such as Next, John Lewis and Lidl) typically offer specific buying schemes.

Graduates will normally be based in a central head office, as is the case for John Lewis. 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. Graduates at John Lewis, for example, will work in home, fashion and electricals.

Following the completion of a graduate scheme, it is likely that graduates will take on the role of assistant buyer or similar. Arcadia and John Lewis, for instance, both refer to this role as the next likely stage in a graduate’s career progression. 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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