BY S. INDRAMALAR
IF you fancy yourself a fashion trendspotter and would like a glamorous job that allows you to shop with someone else’s money, a good career to consider would be retail buying/merchandising.
Department store buyers are responsible for selecting material and accessories for the clothes that eventually end up on the rack. An integral arm of the retail industry, buyers operate in a fast-paced environment, working closely with other retail professionals – with designers to ensure their brands reflect the latest trends; with vendors to negotiate costs; and with technical designers to ensure the right fitting.
The decisions buyers make can directly impact a store’s reputation and profits – bad decisions can lead to stock overruns and losses Because they are directly responsible for keeping customers shopping at their stores, it is not surprising that buyers work under a lot of pressure.
Small stores usually have one buyer responsible for all the merchandise. However, larger stores have assistant or associate buyers working under the head buyer to purchase items for individual departments. Buyers often start out as assistants or associates in order to learn the trade and, in most cases, retailers hire graduates for management training programmes.
Buyers need a good eye for fashion and trends.They must also have a keen sense of how business operates, possess analytical skills, and be willing to work long hours.
Unlike typical shoppers, buyers have to analyse inventory and sales reports, meet with consultants and vendors, attend trade and fashion shows, follow competitor advertisements, negotiate prices, payment and delivery, and much more. A buyer often works long hours and travels frequently.
Hobby turned career
Paul Cheung has been working in the retail industry for more than two decades – from his humble beginnings as a sales assistant to his current high-responsibility post as senior manager (merchandising) at Metrojaya Bhd.
Settling on a career in merchandising was not difficult for Cheung. “I enjoy shopping and am a frequent window-shopper, so I thought, ‘Why not do what I enjoy and make a living from it at the same time?’
“What initially attracted me to this profession was the glamour – travelling to fashion shows and exhibitions all over the world. However, the true nature of the job was nothing close to what I had imagined. Once I got over the thrill of travelling, reality sunk in and I had to deal with the amount of work we were expected to do on these trips.
“We often have to start work the moment we step out of the plane – even if it is after a 20-hour flight – and we work for 15 or 16 hours each day. This is mainly because we have only three or four days to get all our work back and we have to ensure we get everything done before flying out – meeting people, making decisions, purchasing, and the rest.”
Despite the all-consuming nature of the job, the fashionable 40-year-old loves his job as it is not only satisfying but challenging, too.
“I have always wanted to do things that would affect not just one or two people but the masses. This drives me, and each time I do something successful, I gain confidence and satisfaction. After a while, it ceased to be ‘just a job’ and now, I enjoy it tremendously.
“I also feel great each time I see someone wearing an outfit from Metrojaya ? something which I had a hand in,” enthuses Cheung who began his career overseas.
At Metrojaya where he has been for two years, Cheung is responsible primarily for the ladies department, which includes clothing, accessories and the children’s section.
How does one qualify to be a retail buyer?
There is no hard and fast rule. Some of the people who have succeeded in retail and, in particular, merchandising, gave up high-flying careers as engineers or lawyers. I graduated with a Higher Diploma in a related field and started as a sales assistant; a really good way to get a feel of the industry.
Many people think that a sales assistant’s job is rather lowly but, in fact, it is a great stepping-stone. This is because sales assistants are on the ground – meeting and dealing with customers, finding out what they like, what sells and what doesn’t.
You can’t possibly get as much if you start with a job that keeps you deskbound. So, my advice is start with a job that allows you to get to know the industry you want to get into. Basically, everyone goes in as a beginner – you join as an assistant buyer or assistant merchandiser and if you have passion and inclination for the job and are willing to work hard, you will move up quickly.
(Metrojaya Human Resources Department manager Christine Chow adds: “Graduates can also join as management trainees where they will get to learn the industry basics before they start dealing with vendors. My advice to those interested in this field is to garner as much experience as early as possible; for instance, by working as a sales assistant during the holidays.”)
What does a retail buyer do?
It depends on what kind of retailer you work for. Some buyers’ duty is strictly merchandising – only buying and selling without having to worry about what the shop/store looks like. However, if you are a buying for department stores, you have to work very closely with the designers, sales assistants and operations staff.
Although merchandising is mainly about buying and selling, to be a successful merchandiser, you have to build an aura around your products. We (department stores) do not merely sell clothes but a lifestyle. The clothes we sell are more than just clothes; they are personalities. For example, Zona is not just a label but a lady and we have to conceptualise her – what she likes to do and wear and eat, etc. At the end of the day it is not the clothes that sell but the lifestyle and personality they project.
We provide consumers with “the right thing at the right time at the right price”. We have to build our products and project an entire lifestyle concept to attract people, so much so they won’t mind parting with their hard-earned money to get it.
People often do not realise there is a psychological aspect to our job – we have to get into the minds of consumers, to see and also foresee what they like.
Many think this is one of the best jobs to have as buyers get to shop without having to pay for a single thing. But what they don’t realise is the amount of strain buyers undergo.
Shopping is fun, but not when you have to do it under immense mental pressure. Imagine, you are flown to a faraway country and given the responsibility of buying, making split-second decisions and relying solely on your judgement. At moments like this, 1+1 may not necessary add up to 2.
Decision-making is made even harder because, at the back of your mind, you know that once you return home and the things you have bought do not sell, you are in deep trouble. Shopping under such circumstances is not fun.
Buyers also have to be numerate since merchandising is, after all, business. Therefore, they must be able to do basic costing – decide how to spend the allocation or budget given.
What kind of personality suits this career?
Firstly, buyers have to put aside their egos. When you are buying for a department store, you are buying what your customers like and not what you like. Your personal style may be very different, so you have to put that aside and think objectively of what will catch consumers’ attention.
Secondly, you have to be genuinely interested in the job because work is hard and the hours can be long. This is definitely not a nine to five job. You are on the job every day of the year. When I am walking around a mall window-shopping, even on my day off, I will be thinking of aspects of the job – what will look good, etc. This is the attitude we want in potential buyers. The drive and passion must be there above everything else.
Buyers also need a good sense of gauging fashion trends as we work six to nine months in advance. They have to be good at forecasting trends, colours, and fabrics.The danger is when your projection does not come true.
What is the best part of your job?
Well, travelling and working are still very enjoyable, even with the pressure. The best part is getting to work alongside creative people, both here and overseas. When you see an idea come into fruition – something being created, something that has never been done before – it is really amazing. It is creating something out of nothing.
What is the worst part?
Well, for ladies who need their beauty sleep, this may not be the ideal job. The worst part is the time – the job can take up a lot of your personal time.
What is the salary range?
An assistant buyer (fresh graduate) supports the buyer in delivering appropriate products on time within the budget and can earn RM1,600 to RM2,000. Buyers can earn RM2,200 to RM3,000, while senior buyers draw RM3,000 to RM4,500.
From a senior buyer, you can progress to merchandising manager where you are responsible for overseeing a department in the merchandising division (ladies’ division, children’s division, etc), planning and reviewing store performance, and controlling stock intake. A merchandising manager’s salary can range from RM4,500 to RM6,000.
Further up the ladder, you can be head of the merchandising division with overall responsibility for design, buying and product merchandising. At this stage, the salary can range from RM6,500 to RM12,000, or more.