What I learnt from 4 years of being a BUYER

What I learnt from 4 years of being a BUYER

As I am starting my preparations for Surf Expo (our biggest show of the year) I had a flash back to several years ago, when I was a buyer preparing to travel to the summer trade shows.  I remember the preparations for a buyer to be far more challenging than they are for me now as a vendor.

Although I started West Indies Wear in 2006, I was running my business at night and weekends only for the first few years.  From 2007 to 2011 I worked as General Manager and Head Buyer for a chain of gift shops in S.Maarten.  The founders of this company had sold after nearly 40 years of hard work, building up their little gift business from only one store in the early 70's, to 16 stores and 53 employees.  They badly wanted to retire, so I was employed to manage the company for the new corporate owners.  Of course this company had been their "life's work" so they didnt just sign it over and disappear, they hung around to teach me, and try to ensure their much loved employee's carried on.

At this stage of my career I had a lot of experience in design, pattern making, grading and production side of the clothing business, but never any buying, merchandising, marketing or retailing.  This job was a major learning curve for me, but I absorbed as much of their 40 years of experience and knowledge that I could. 

This couple did a lot of trade shows over the years but they insisted a show had to pay for itself.  It costs a lot money to attend these trade shows, especially when you are flying in from the Caribbean to NYC for example, so you had to ensure the shows paid for themselves.  Here is a photo I took in NYC.

We had to find new things for the stores, and we always looked for what was new and trending.  I remember being told to sit outside the show, and watch all the buyers arriving.  Check out their clothes, shoes, bags etc, hmmmm navy blue is big this season!

This is what we did BEFORE leaving for the show.

  • We ran sales reports for all of the vendors that we had bought from the previous year, and the vendors we knew were going to be at the show.  The sales report included info about today's QOH (quantity on hand) but also the sales for each sku (item/color/size) for our peak selling months.
  • We would also print out label pages with our SHIP TO and BILL TOO addresses on it, so that if we found new vendors we could quickly hand over this information and it would be quick & easy for them to attach it to our order.
  • We would visit our stores and talk to our sales staff to find out if customers had been asking for anything in particular.
  • We would also scroll through the show website before the show, and note down all the key vendors booth numbers, so that we could quickly find them.
  • We made some appointments with our key vendors, but we generally preferred to WALK the show.  Here is a photo I took of a booth at New York Gift Show.

This is what we did AT the show.

  • When we entered the show we always started at one end and walked the show, aisle by aisle, end to end.
  • When we found new items we thought would suit our stores, I was taught that it was important to first think about how these items would be displayed in our stores.  Does it come packaged?  Are we going to hang it on a grid wall?  Or buy enough items to hang a "story" on a 4-way display?  If it is gift items, will it sit in our glass cube shelving, in a cane basket or display it in a jewelry showcase?  What other product lines would this line compliment and be displayed with?
  • If we decided to go ahead we would always do a TRIAL ORDER.  We would order a small quantity for "4 stores only" and have it shipped ASAP (even though it was the middle of the quiet season).  The plan was to get it instore towards the end of low season.  We would allow for 1-2 months of selling time in our best stores and see how it performed.  If it was HOT we did a major re-order 2 months before high season, and put it in all 16 stores.  We would be well prepared and ready to roll for the busy months.
  • At the show it was also crucial to absorb FRESH new display ideas.  We would look at the booths, and see how the products were displayed.  We especially looked at how the vendors displayed their lines, and we asked if we could take photos.  Better display in your stores gives you the upper edge over your competitors, so this is SUPER important.  Vendors don't mind if you"borrow" their display ideas, after all they know how best to create a theme that works for their product line.
  • We often spent time in the shopping malls, especially in NYC, always scouring for display ideas.  Window displays, counter displays, table top displays.  SO much inspiration, SO little time.  Here is one of a million photos I took of instore displays.

This is what we did AFTER the show.

  • Now before we went back home, they were very STRICT with me about placing orders from the show BEFORE I got back to the island.  Their theory was that once back in the office, that pile of catalogs would sit untouched, as I would be so busy back on the daily grind of running the stores and managing the day to day issues.  So ordering was done in my hotel room, in the flight departure lounges, and even on the planes.
  • During high season, I would not be traveling to shows at all.  That was the time for hard work in the stores.  Checking displays, re-working things, and constantly running and re-running those same sales reports to make sure the HOT items were not running out.  Considering the extra shipping time to get new goods into our stores in the Caribbean from USA, I had to make sure we maximized sales in the busy months with our best sellers.
  • I had an excel worksheet which had all of the vendors in the first column, and then a column for every month of the year.  Every time I analyzed a vendor in a given month, I would highlight that box.  It was the only way I could keep track of the hundreds of vendors.

Maintaining the perfect inventory level.

As well as the creative buying side of my job, the new corporate owners were breathing down my neck monthly.  I was running this company through the tough years of the Global Financial Crisis, and it was a constant juggle between having enough inventory to reach the increasingly difficult sales targets they set me, but not letting the inventory level get out of hand.  I was taught to let those inventory levels drop right back in low season, but not too low that the sales figures drop.  I guess that is the hardest thing to balance for all retail buyers.

If I had any purchasing disasters, hopefully it was on relatively LOW units (from my initial 4 store trials) but I was taught to move merchandise around, change displays, try it in different stores, but then DISCOUNT it out.  Don't keep it at full price, just swallow your pride and put it on the sale rack.  Of course the new corporate owners were breathing down my neck about keeping the GROSS PROFIT level where it should be too, so I had to come up with creative ways to maintain my margins.  I usually designed new things to have manufactured in China, India and Mexico so that I had a line of high margin items to create a buffer for those SALE months.

My years as a "retailer" were amazing. I  learnt so much in my crash course, but I was lucky to have 40 years experience taught to me by the previous owners, but also to have the corporate owners keeping me on my toes with the "numbers game".  I have been doing some research on other blog posts for tips for buyers attending trade shows, and I thought this one was good for small business owners. (click here)

Also the Retail Doc Bob Phibbs, has some really helpful articles for retailers.  I loved this one with 6 tips for attending shows (click here).  I also found this article called Three Ways to Use Merchandising to Drive Retail Sales (click here)  I love how they talk about being resourceful and using what you have to make fresh displays.  It doesn't have to cost a lot of money.

I will leave you with this photo of another window display.  Lovely.... keep your eyes open for inspiration everywhere.  Display is SO very important.  

The 3 top pieces of advice I learnt were....



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1 comment

Thanks Kim! Such great practical advice. It’s always good to re-read this and remind myself!

Holly Speight

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