Buyers and merchandisers are like two sides of the same coin and, when they work together, they can really lift a brand. So what skills do today’s fledgling stars need, asks Alison Clements

Harmonious working relationships between buyers and merchandisers are central to first-rate retailing. If a product range achieves its sales plan, everybody’s happy. However, buyers’ and merchandisers’ requisite skills are poles apart. A good buyer must instinctively know which products will work, be an outstanding negotiator to attain the best possible price and have an analytical mind capable of grasping huge volumes of information about suppliers’ terms and performance indicators. Merchandising is about planning and developing a strategy to enable a retailer to sell products that hit sales and profit targets.

Of course, as modern retailing becomes ever-more sophisticated, the two roles keep evolving, so what do recruiters look for when searching out the buyers and merchandisers that will shape a business today?

Ann Summers commercial director Tony Indyk says: “When it comes to building a successful career as a buyer, the most crucial quality is a keen eye for product, which can only be achieved through having a thorough understanding of the customers and their needs and expectations.” He adds that the ability to negotiate and build strong relationships is also essential.

Indyk believes a merchandiser’s priority should be to focus on developing a strong commercial awareness, “as well as benefiting from good customer and product understanding, and technical proficiencies such as a being a numerate thinker”.

Many retailers now expect a numerate degree for many junior positions, such as assistant merchandiser. Such qualifications also help in all types of more senior roles, says Retail Human Resources account director Robbie Dagger. He adds that more senior merchandising jobs are often difficult to fill, because companies want someone who has had exposure to trading peaks, with experience of Christmas, Sales, summer and so on. “You really need a couple of years in the job to be truly tested for progression from junior to the next level,” he says.

With the growth of multichannel retailing, buyers and merchandisers need to be more systems savvy than ever and, with the increase in international sourcing, experience of distance-buying and dealing with overseas manufacturers is becoming more important.

Mel Serpen, brand director of online fashion retailer Neesh, has held numerous buying roles up to buying director at high street names such as River Island, Bhs and Faith. Her view is that buying and merchandising roles have become increasingly process-driven and based more on numbers than instinct, because of the need to streamline operations, buy centrally and manage the critical path of product meticulously. “Great buyers today have a love of the product and brand, but must also be fantastically process-driven,” she says. “You can’t afford to have one skill set without the other.”

Dare to be different

Serpen believes that, in a crowded market, fashion retailers that simply follow mainstream trends or focus too heavily on price risk losing their brand identity and competitive edge. “Too few buyers create trends based on what they know their customers will want. If buyers are allowed to shine through in the job they do, so that their personal interpretation of the brand can be seen in the product, you are on to a winner,” she says. “I think River Island does this incredibly well. It is possible to have processes and structure in place in buying and merchandising and encourage creativity, too.”

In the grocery sector, buying and merchandising is more likely to be based on pricing and improving margin than instinct and creativity. Its buyers require superlative communication skills, because work around promotions and product development requires close co-operation between buyers and merchandisers and building relationships with suppliers is a big part of the job.

And, with the main food multiples expanding their categories rapidly, there is more diversity in their non-food buying and merchandising roles. Tesco graduate trainee buyer Michael Hume (see box), who buys equestrian equipment for the retailer’s sports department, says that non-food buying is “certainly more ideas-based”. And, because equestrian lines are new to Tesco, “there is real scope for myself and my colleagues to seek out fresh opportunities, suggest suppliers or new products and help build the range,” he explains.

Hume believes that working alongside experienced buyers and merchandisers is proving invaluable. “Having an understanding of each other’s jobs can really drive success. The merchandisers make sure our negotiations with suppliers work in a commercial sense,” he says. “They give wind to our ideas and force those ideas into reality.”

Mutual respect for each other’s roles must always be encouraged. A good merchandising team will appreciate the product and, in return, buyers should respect the numbers. If either side is too precious about their domain, problems arise. But this can be a good test, says Serpen. “Of course there will be heated conversations, but people with excellent communication skills and a rounded view of what you’re all ultimately trying to achieve are the ones that will make the grade and get the best results.”

Life as a Tesco buyer

Chemistry graduate Michael Hume joined Tesco as a graduate trainee six months ago. He works as an assistant buyer in the sports category, procuring equestrian clothing and equipment that will be sold in larger stores and through the Tesco Direct catalogue.

His analytical background and head for figures was an obvious attraction, but he says the retail giant also seeks communication skills and the ability to build a rapport with suppliers, who may not naturally consider themselves to be supermarket suppliers.

“Tesco has only been selling equestrian lines for two and a half years, so the range is still in its infancy compared with other categories,” says Hume. “When we approach suppliers, there is really only a 20-minute window to work up a relationship with them and convince them of the merits of coming on board.”

Hume feels that his job is to get the best for Tesco’s customers and that “this may shape who we work with”, but he is adamant that squeezing the keenest price out of suppliers is not what he’s there for. “Suppliers must decide for themselves if they want to supply Tesco and when they commit to us we work closely with them to get the product and pricing right, so that everyone benefits. In negotiations, it’s important to stress that we want to build their business, as well as our own.”