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How to Become a Successful Buyer or Merchandiser

Learn market leading tips and strategies from Farfetch’s brand and strategy director Susanne Tide-Frater, who has over 20 years’ experience in the industry at Selfridges, Harrods and Victoria Beckham.
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  • BoF Team

"It helped me get a job as a buyer in Bloomingdales!" says one BoF course graduate. Boost your CV and gain your competitive advantage by taking the BoF Education course: The Art and Science of Buying and Merchandising.

LONDON, United Kingdom — Susanne Tide-Frater has a wealth of experience in product strategy and brand development. Beginning her career in Paris, she went on to take on strategic creative roles at Selfridges, Harrods and Victoria Beckham before becoming brand and strategy director at digital disruptor Farfetch, which market estimates could reach a value of over $5 billion if it IPOs as expected this year. Now, she is sharing the lessons she learnt across a 20-year career with the next generation of buying talent through a BoF online education course.

By taking her course, you will learn how buyers and merchandisers mix instinct with hard data to build product selections that customers actually want to buy, as well as how the roles of a buyer and merchandiser differ and work together. You'll learn how the buying cycle dictates that buyers and merchandisers must work on multiple seasons at once, highlighting the importance of trend forecasting, before getting to grips with the thorough analysis required to allocate products across differing points of sale.

"It helped me get a job as a buyer in Bloomingdales!" says one course graduate, based in the United States. "The course was eye-opening at times. Very smooth, user friendly, well structured and easy to navigate. I learned many things and I greatly appreciated the readings and activities. The pricing was perfect," says a digital communications professional based in France.

Get to know the course and your course expert by reading excerpts from the introduction below. Click here to take the interactive online course now, featuring 8 hours of exclusive video content available to study at your own pace — with no completion date.

What exactly does a buyer do?

In a nutshell, buyers are all curators or selectors of a specific edit of a range. That applies to a buyer at a boutique, or in a department store as much as to a buyer in a brand who will actually buy for their own retail or e-tail selection. They edit and they curate, working with their knowledge of the company's DNA. For example, once we had made Selfridges a cool store, we had a very specific way of looking at collections and making sure that only the cool, standout pieces were in the buy.

How does a merchandiser differ?

Merchandising is a more complex profession and I would say a younger profession in the industry that is still being shaped as we speak. There are the number crunchers, the people who actually support the buying team with analysis. I would say where buyers look to the future, the merchandiser actually looks to the past to understand buying patterns and buying behaviour. The merchandiser is the planner of the business and there are very hardcore merchandisers. Mostly they work with very creative buyers and stores as a team.

Buyers look to the future, the merchandiser actually looks to the past to understand buying patterns.

The second type of merchandising is actually somebody who has more of a product role. That is how the profession evolved in department stores. Pure number crunchers disappeared because stores wanted merchandisers who also cast an eye on the future and who don’t mechanically just recommend to buy what was selling in the past. The world has become slightly more complicated.

The third type of merchandiser is a profession that I think is super interesting. These individuals are still very rare, but I trained one at Victoria Beckham who came from Stella McCartney. They are people who help to shape the collection from within a brand. They help the design team, they conceive a collection plan, they build the framework from which creativity can evolve. So really, they empower the creatives and as such, they need to be product people as well. This profession is relatively new and there are more and more of these wonderful merchandisers, but it is really something for somebody who is interested in a creative profession but doesn't want to be a buyer.

How can you develop a good gut instinct?

I asked myself that same question when I started initially at Selfridges. I had never worked there before and I thought how on earth do I know. The reality is, buying and merchandising is not for everyone and you probably need a little bit of time. Look at your experiences, don’t be too adventurous right away. Be led a little bit more by the numbers to start out with, add a bit of spice with your intuition, see how it performs, get a bit gutsier and feel it from there.

Look at your experiences, don't be too adventurous right away. Be led a little bit more by the numbers to start out.

A buyer who doesn’t have gut instincts will have a harder time. A buyer who doesn’t only have gut but also relies a lot on analysis will actually find a place in a specific type of organisation. Companies function in different ways — gut is much more important in a highly creative environment than high street chain for example.

What do merchandisers and buyers do during fashion week and market week?

It would be fantastic to go out in the market and buy whatever your heart desires — this is how customers shop when they have the money. Now, buyers unfortunately, function slightly differently. They have what we call in the industry an open to buy. It’s basically the budget for the season which allows them to achieve the turnover that the company needs to increase their sale.

When it’s fashion show time, it can be hugely exciting and your days are super filled. There can be up to 12 or 15 shows a day. A car takes you from show to show, with the buying director, a buyer and possibly a merchandiser exchanging ideas and also possibly preparing to negotiate with brands. A very important part of being in market is meeting with the brands and going to the show rooms. In the show rooms you obviously see product, you get a first glimpse of the ranges which can be very different from fashion shows.

A fashion show is often a very different edit for a different purpose than the actual showroom — which presents the range and also more commercial pieces that you haven’t seen in the show. The showroom is where the negotiations with the sales director, or sometimes the chief executive take place. It can be quite tense and the buyer has to be on top of it all at all times. The buying cycle can last up to 4 or 5 weeks and this goes on daily, seven days a week. So a certain stamina, a certain hunger, passion, cool headedness and the support of people who hold you up, the merchandisers, and who pull you back down to earth, is super necessary.

"It helped me get a job as a buyer in Bloomingdales!" says one BoF course graduate. Boost your CV and gain your competitive advantage by taking the BoF Education course: The Art and Science of Buying and Merchandising.

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