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Inside the Buying Team of a Billion Dollar Company

To enable the Zalando team to manage more than 300,000 products from nearly 2000 brands, buyers are given responsibility for their own creative and commercial success — and the technological capabilities to find it their way.
Zalando buying team | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando
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BERLIN, Germany — Founded in 2008, Zalando came of age in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and at a time of rapid digital disruption. Despite those challenges, over the past 10 years the company has grown impressively, becoming Europe's largest e-commerce platform for fashion in the process. Driving that success is the Berlin-based e-tailer's willingness to think differently in approaching retail — taking advantage of emerging tools and technologies, while adopting new thinking in managing its teams. At Zalando, digital capabilities empower employees rather than side-line them, and nowhere is this more readily apparent than in its buying teams.

The first in a new form of partnerships, BoF Careers immersed itself in the Zalando buying team to discover how a company that reached €4.5 billion in revenues in 10 years manages its buy — and the culture of empowered personal ambition that drives its growth.

BoF sits down with three members of the Zalando buying team to discuss its culture, its process, and how individuals are developed as buyers.

Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

Team Structure and Culture

At Zalando, the buying team is structured into Small Business Units, a term intentionally evocative of SMEs. Each unit is focused on a specific element of the overall buy, be it a product type or intended customer base, and is staffed by a four-person team: a buyer, a planner and admin support. The units are intentionally self-sufficient and are given an impressive amount of autonomy in their work, across product selection, media and creative campaigns and budgets — which are often significant. Astutely, Zalando structured its team into agile and dedicated units in order to maximise performance and drive employee engagement, responding to its largely millennial and Gen Z workforce’s preference for autonomy.

Michelle Burkholder | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

Michelle Burkholder — Head of Women’s Fast Fashion — Joined in 2015

“We just really trust our buyers to make decisions on their own.”

What makes the Zalando buying team unique?

The biggest difference at Zalando versus elsewhere is the speed, the agility in the ways we work. The business is changing so quickly, so over the course of the three and a half years that I have been here, we’ve really had to constantly adapt the way we work. I think the good thing is that we have quite a lot of people that have been at Zalando for some time, but we just turned ten years old, so some time means like four or five, six years. They bring a sense of constancy and really represent the culture of adaptability and flexibility but also of entrepreneurial thinking and ambitious experimentation. In the hiring process, we’re always stressing the fact that someone has to be flexible. They have to be really adaptable and good with change. I think as we have grown, we have built the teams around people who have the ability to change and grow with the company.

How much responsibility are members of the team given?

Zalando is the most autonomous place that I’ve ever worked. I think it comes down to the speed with which we’re working and also now that we’ve built like really experienced teams we’ve developed people from the buying assistant level upwards. But regardless of the level you enter the business in or regardless of your position, you have a lot of responsibility more than I’ve seen anywhere else. I mean you have junior buyers managing large budgets in their role, there’s still like obviously a lot of involvement from the managers but I think there’s certain things that in businesses would go through some major sign off or something that we just really trust our employees to make decisions on their own.

Zalando is the most autonomous place that I've ever worked.

Why is Zalando an inspiring place to work?

The opportunity for sure. We have quite big goals that the business has set us to achieve in the next two years — essentially doubling the business, so on the one hand we’re all thinking, “Oh god how are we going to do this?” but on the other hand, it’s super exciting to be the ones to come up with the ideas that are going to make that happen. But the most exciting thing is that the ideas really come more from the team than from me and the other leaders. I have to say, I really love it. If I’m honest, I came here thinking that I would stay one or two years and it has been three and a half and I don’t feel like I’m really ready to go anywhere.

Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

The Buying Process

Digital disruption and the globalisation of the economy have fundamentally altered the way in which buyers work. At Zalando, these changes have been treated as opportunities, and the company is committed to investing in the technological tools to empower its buyers, while incorporating algorithmic insights into the daily work of its teams. Through freeing up their buyers’ time with digital efficiency, Zalando is in a position to strategically focus on brand partnerships at every level of its business, to an unusually high degree. Deeper partnerships with brands not only drive business, but enable individual units to develop through iterative improvements to their assortment, media and consumer engagement.

Sabrina Bauer | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

Sabrina Bauer — Head of Mens Footwear and Accessories — Joined in 2010

“The importance of brand partnerships and managing strategic relationships is unique.”

How has the buying process evolved?

Everything has changed. When I started, Zalando was a start-up of 80 people and the buying team for apparel didn’t exist. The job was consistent of just running around tradeshows, convincing brands to work with us and explaining to them who we were. It was so much fun and we worked a lot but we were all travelling together, focusing on getting the best brands and it was a great team spirit. Now, it’s a huge company, it’s one of the biggest companies in Europe and the leading fashion e-commerce business in Europe. We work with big data and tech — it has been a real journey that I definitely will not experience again somewhere else.

How does data and technology now fit into a buying role at Zalando?

Today, the tech teams are building tools for us to foresee trends with data, to not only look back at what has worked, but to ask, “What does our customer want to have in the future?” That makes the job much more interesting. On a daily basis, buyers receive daily data from every kind of angle of their business — what’s sold, where, how much and when— so you can really analyse your assortment. It’s very data and analytical but also creative of course. The tools that the tech teams have built for us have been hugely liberating for the buyers, who no longer have to spend half their days in excel sheets. The buyers are super grateful, because the data really acts to support your gut feeling.

The tools that the tech teams have built for us have been hugely liberating for the buyers.

What is unique about the buying process at Zalando?

We have four-person teams of planners, buyers and assistants — we call them a small business unit and they as a team are responsible. We always say, “We want you to see this unit as your own enterprise, so how would you now take your decision if it were your own little company? Would you still make this buy?” We don’t review every buy they do — they do this really autonomously.

We also focus on partnerships, which impacts the etiquette we want our buyers to adopt. We don’t follow that old school image of a buyer drinking champagne, travelling aimlessly. At Zalando, it’s really strategic and extremely collaborative. It’s a day-to-day focus on your relationship with the brands you buy from. The buyers learn how to think strategically about improving their assortment and working with marketing through their relationships with brands. Buyers have a lot of touch points with different departments, so you leave with a very round profile if one day you choose to develop yourself outside of Zalando.

Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

Career Development

To meet the growing demands of its business, Zalando managers meet with their team regularly for a one-on-one progress check. The company recently introduced new tools and training for all employees to establish an environment in which everyone is enabled to share feedback instantly and regularly, alongside the company's yearly development cycle. Zalando excels in developing flexible career paths, enabling its employees to progress “to fit the gaps,” as one junior merchandiser describes it. The company’s flexible approach to promotions is intended to offer employees better opportunities for personal growth and development.

Mark Tranter | Photo: Svenja Krueger for Zalando

Mark Tranter — Lead Buying Beauty — Joined in 2017

"This is the first time that I’ve felt like I’m on the verge of doing something very, very different."

Why did you join Zalando’s buying team?

I was working in London at the time and I was approached for a senior buyer role. They were looking for beauty experts from around the world to help build the new assortment here and build out the category. When I joined the business, it was very much set up for fashion and whilst the support was there to really drive beauty, technically launching a category that was very different to fashion, with different rhythms and behaviours, was a real challenge. It took some very entrepreneurial people in the team and some really bold thinking to drive it through. We were onboarding the team in the autumn of 2017 and we launched in March 2018 — it was a huge accomplishment for the team and the business. A pretty incredible start.

How has Zalando enabled you to develop?

The company is so focused on the future, and really willing to empower us to take advantage of new opportunities, which really helps you grow as an individual and as a leader. In terms of my team, beauty has seen a huge drive towards digital at the moment, and brands and retailers are finding they are having to react. I feel that Zalando is really at the forefront of that. I feel that we are driving digital beauty as a point of difference and I’m really excited to see how it is going to work out.

Our strategy is evolving and some of the brands that we’re bringing on board at the moment are very exciting — they are not what people would expect to see from Zalando and represented in a way that people wouldn’t expect to see in the market. I have been in the beauty industry coming up thirteen years and this is the first time that I’ve felt like I am on the verge of doing something very, very different.

We are really trying to change how the industry thinks.

How do you develop your team?

I’m a big believer in learning from peers and learning from other people in the business. Shadowing others, going to meetings — just observing and learning how somebody else deals with a situation is really key. However, something that I’m keen to instil in the team is that they have autonomy over the strategy of their unit. For example, one young fashion buyer, she is very focused on trends. For example, at the moment it is all about Korean beauty, but she’s starting to source for next year so she’s looking towards Japan which is, both she and I believe, the next big trend. She has complete autonomy over that — she creates her own strategy, manages her own budget, holds those relationships herself, so how she really drives that unit strategy is her ownership, they are all her decisions.

What kind of individuals succeed in the Zalando buying team?

At Zalando, it is always “Think big.” We work in industries that are very proud to say that that’s the way that it’s always been done. But something that I have really felt at Zalando since I have been here is this sense that, just because that is the way it has always been done doesn’t mean that it is right — and we can find a new way of doing it. You really have to have that entrepreneurial spirit of taking ownership of a project and driving it through whichever way possible here. In my experience, tenacity is incredibly important. There are a lot of brands that are now beginning to think in new and different ways, or trying to at least, so success often comes down to being persistent and really believing in the potential of what we are doing here. That’s something that really impresses me, that never give up spirit. Being bold and able to think differently is key for a buyer in any industry, in any company, but specifically in Zalando — we are really trying to change how the industry thinks.

These interviews have been edited and condensed. To create the BoF x Zalando Company Culture Partnership, BoF sat down with members of the Zalando team to hear their accounts independent from managerial input.

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