A retail buyer in the fashion business obviously needs a sense of style and to be up with the latest trends, but it would be a mistake to think the job's responsibilities simply revolve around sourcing products guaranteed to sell well.
In fact, Steve Wong, division manager for ladies' shoes, handbags and Co-ed at Hong Kong Seibu Enterprise Co Ltd, is quick to point out the full extent of the role. "Retail buyers have to plan and manage the entire purchasing cycle," he explains. "The other duties include forecasting sales and ensuring profits. It is also necessary to handle costing and sampling and to oversee the follow-up and distribution of orders."
He adds that many buyers have to travel frequently to maintain close contacts with current and potential suppliers. Every season, members of his team attend different fashion trade events in Europe. They also travel to visit wholesale showrooms to ensure the very best selection of goods is always available for customers.
Anticipating one recent trend, Seibu set up a vintage corner in Co-ed — the ladies' fashion department — in June 2006. It was a challenge to get things started because the idea was totally new, creating uncertainties for the buying team about prices, quality requirements and sales projections. "Fortunately, our efforts are paying off," says Mr Wong. "The new section has been a success in terms of both popularity and sales."
Since the very nature of the fashion business is to promote change, buyers need an excellent understanding of what influences the market. This extends to knowing about styling, colours, fabrics and even accessories. Moreover, a good buyer should never be swayed by personal preferences, but always make decisions based on what customers will want and for the good of the company.
"A successful buyer does not choose simply according to his or her own taste," Mr Wong notes. "We must take into account market demand, costs, retail price and other considerations." For example, he was recently shown a white ankle-length fleece coat, which looked very chic and high-end. It was turned down mainly because the temperature in Hong Kong can go as high as 25 degrees Celsius in December.
"Unlike merchandisers, we have to focus on the selling process and, therefore, require specific skills and good business acumen," he says. "I regard strong analytical ability and logical thinking as important attributes for a successful buyer. The sourcing process presents many opportunities to exercise these strenghts."
Explaining the different roles, he notes that a garment merchandiser will usually be responsible for managing the supply chain from design to factory production through to delivery of the right quantity of finished goods to the appointed outlets. They have a great deal of autonomy and must ensure that mistakes are avoided and contingency plans are in place when necessary. In addition, they should have a wealth of knowledge about factory processes and production capacity. This allows them to meet a buyer's specifications and respond quickly if a particular product is requested.
A retail buyer attending a fashion fair will have general instructions to follow and a budget to work with. It is then necessary to adopt a "rapid response" approach when deciding what to order. After seeing the product presentations, there is very limited time to weigh up questions about the potential market response, likely profit margins, and the competition from other buyers from Hong Kong. "There are many inter-related issues and you have to make your move quickly," Mr Wong says.
Because of that, some companies prefer to hire students with mathematics or business degrees and a high level of computer expertise for positions as buyers. Mr Wong himself majored in accountancy and notes that most of his colleagues on the buying team have qualifications in marketing, management or business administration.
"In view of the amount of travel and the need to work closely with people from different backgrounds, a retail buyer should have an outgoing personality and good communication skills," he adds. These will help when liaising with suppliers on stock distribution and with other departments on promotional campaigns.
"At Seibu, the buyers interact a lot with management, the marketing team and the frontline salespeople to ensure customer satisfaction, especially when launching a new season," Mr Wong says. The career path is generally determined by performance and much depends on acquiring sufficient hands-on experience. Usually, retail buyers are promoted from within, but large retail organisations like Seibu may also recruit externally for some more senior buying and management positions.