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Learn What Skill Sets Buyers Need

The buying industry continues to be in flux, but the core skill set required of buyers and merchandisers remains the same — and crucial to succeed, says Farfetch’s brand and strategy director Susanne Tide-Frater.
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  • BoF Team

"It helped me get a job as a buyer in Bloomingdales!" says one BoF course graduate. Gain your competitive advantage and up-to-date insight by taking the BoF Education course: The Art and Science of Buying and Merchandising.

LONDON, United Kingdom — As high profile commercial roles with sought-after interaction and visibility at fashion week, careers in buying and merchandising are a keen favourite among fashion school applicants and graduates. "Most people think it's incredibly glamorous and it's true actually," says Susanne Tide-Frater, brand and strategy director at digital disruptor Farfetch, an e-commerce company partnered with over 700 of the world's best luxury boutiques. "But then, when the lights go out, the buyer continues to roll. After the parties and dinners, the buyer goes back into the hotel room and writes orders, confirms orders, and has to make sure that the money they are spending is responsibly spent."

After starting her career in Paris working on trend development, Tide-Frater went on to work for Selfridges, Harrods and Victoria Beckham in strategic creative roles, learning what a successful career as a buyer or merchandiser entails and experiencing the glamour along the way. "They need to have very specific skill sets," she explains.

But what exactly are the skills that buyers require? “A variety. And every buyer is different, but buyers need to have gut in every sense of the word. They need to be quite fearless because, undoubtedly, they will get it wrong in certain moments.” Below, Tide-Frater continues to share insights from a 20-year career in the industry, from organisation, the right sources, and learning to mix intuition with critical analysis.

For more insight and advice on how to become a success buyer, click here for her exclusive online course with BoF

Managing The Buying Cycle

"This course is really special. There is no official pathway to buying and merchandising and yet it is actually two of the most important functions in the industry. It’s almost a bit mythical. We all know legendary buyers, and we know the names, and we see them at the front rows, but nobody really knows how to get there or what to look out for."

While fashion designers generally work to seasons, dictated by collection dates and shows, buyers and merchandisers follow another calendar: the buying cycle. It refers to the key stages, events and processes that must be followed to buy a product or brand range. “The merchandiser is the one who holds the calendar and the keys to this, to the planning,” Tide-Frater explains.

While working on separate calendars, buyers and merchandisers are guided by designers’ work — and deeply affected by the fluctuating state of fashion week, with designers aiming for bigger and bolder, faster and sooner. With “see now, buy now” strategies introduced to realign brands’ media and retail cycles, buyers and merchandisers must react accordingly — that is, extremely quickly. “From two seasons, traditionally, winter and summer, we have shifted to four plus seasons,” says Tide-Frater. “It’s a permanently repeating cycle of preparation, hunting, gathering out in the market.”

The quick turnover of trends and collections also requires buyers and merchandisers to work on multiple seasons at once, so there is a heavy emphasis on organisation. The critical path is the scheduling calendar by which the entire buying and merchandising process operates. A good critical path works as a retro planning management tool. “It will start with a key date on which product is delivered onto the shop floor and then the critical path is worked backwards,” Tide-Frater says. It is crucial that orders meet key deadlines on time — if the product is late, this can negatively impact sales.

Trend Forecasting

"A buyer will inevitably get it wrong at times because we’re not in the rocket science department here. It is about predicting, it’s about envisioning, it’s about knowledge that people have accumulated, but in the end it's the gut that will steer them," says Tide-Frater. Indeed, the buyer must take into account how the market is likely to evolve, what consumer trends there are, what social behaviours they can perceive and what short term trends are emerging.

To make an informed decision, buyers need to amalgamate this information, which they acquire from three primary sources. First is comp shopping, which Tide-Frater defines as “going to places, looking at competitors, getting an understanding of the market, so as to not work in isolation.”

Trend forecasting is the second source of information, which can come from specific information through a company or through trend forecasting sites such as WGSN. For Tide-Frater, it is the most controversial of the three sources. “I have very mixed feelings about trend forecasting,” she says, arguing that constantly watching what others do might inadvertently result in copying. “I recommend that you always take enough time to innovate, follow your gut.”

Customer profiling is the third primary source, which involves the creation of personas that “give a steer on the different types of shopping behaviours. It is the customer who will fill the bank and make any buyer a success or failure.” Customer profiling reflects a brand’s specific consumer audience but also works globally, looking at how customers from different countries purchase. Within customer profiles includes long and short-term behaviours, from immediate trends to lasting phenomena in the market, such as almost genderless dressing.

Commercial Sensibility and Creative Curation

“What all buyers have in common — they’re all curators or selectors,” Tide-Frater explains. But while creativity is essential, the brand and strategy director attests success to the combination of art and science in buying and merchandising. It is blending creative vision with a technical business mind: “They need to have their left and right brain permanently switched on.”

The roles require extensive knowledge of “the DNA of the company” you are working for — to analyse critically and objectively, and follow your initiative. “Buying and merchandising is really about the weird and wonderful tension between art and science. It’s about the business of fashion and those two facets are intrinsically essential for the system to work. Without a vision, there is no business and without business, there cannot be creativity,” says Tide-Frater.

"It helped me get a job as a buyer in Bloomingdales!" says one BoF course graduate. Stand out in your next interview and gain up-to-date knowledge from industry experts by taking the BoF Education course: The Art and Science of Buying and Merchandising.

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