The Evolution of Buying and Merchandising Functions in Mid-Market Fashion Retail | In Practise

The Evolution of Buying and Merchandising Functions in Mid-Market Fashion Retail

Former Head of Buying at New Look

Learning outcomes

  • How has the buying function in apparel retail been set up historically? How is this changing as a result of the growth in online fashion apparel retail?
  • How should retailers reorganize our Buying and Merchandising teams to reflect the massive structural shifts that the industry is experiencing?
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Executive Bio

Claire Mclennan

Former Head of Buying at New Look

Claire has over 29 years experience in apparel and fashion retail in the UK. She spent a number of years at the Arcadia Group before taking on the Head of Buying role at New Look from 2004 to 2009. Claire left New Look in 2009 to join Peacocks, where she spent over five years as the Head of Buying for the womenswear category. She consults on the fashion and apparel industry and has deep experience in the areas of Buying, Merchandising and Marketing. Read more

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Historically, how has the buying function in apparel retail been set up?

The function really has evolved over the years but fundamentally the structure is via at this top of the department. The buyer will be concerned with a particular product area. There will be the network buyer for that particular retailer and they will work alongside a merchandiser. I'll go through what those business analysis roles are. The structure underneath that would be an assistant buyer and then we'd have an administrative assistant. Depending on the number of SKUs that we were managing for the number of options that we were managing would depend then on the size of the team required to deliver that.

Buyer, merchandiser and then alongside that a design function who would be there to help us have a look at trends and decipher trend from a number of different sources. The buyer sits really in the middle of the function and draws from a number of areas in order to formulate a range. Those areas would be historical information i.e what we've sold in previous seasons. The merchandiser would be generating that analysis in order to inform the buyer of potentially things like key blocks of stock. If, for example, we have always sold a black legging as a product block.

We would look at how many of those leggings we'd sold in the previous year. Was it on trend or off of trend? Whether there are things that we needed to do to update that? Did we need to re-look at the price? How many units did we need to buy this year versus last year? Was it a growth area or a decline area? We would look at that as an initial in order to build the blocks that created then the range. Black leggings might be one of them. You might say if it's a trouser department you might have denim in there, smart trousers, casual trousers and we build each of those areas up accordingly.

If there was a history that we could call on, we would then put the trend element on top of that and say, "Well, actually this year, is it a trouser season or a skirt season?" and this is all the information we would then pull from the design function, and the design function would be drawing their information from the catwalks. They would be drawing information from street trends, they would be drawing information from celebrity trends. There's all sorts of information they would be pulling to feed into the buyer. Things that play on that as well would be things like colour.

What sort of colours were on trend? What colours were just basic colours? The range would be built up accordingly taking into account all of those elements and really that's the starting point of the buying function. As we approach a season all has to be time critical because also obviously we source from overseas so we have to build in lead time into our decision-making processes. We would have a cycle that we would go through. For example, an autumn-winter season. We would start planning that autumn-winter season in January. For example, January 2019 we will be looking to plan and strategize for intake coming through in May, June and July which would be transitional autumn winter.

Then into full autumn winter come August, September. That planning cycle would start in the January of that year. We would really look to build the range up. That range would then be signed off as the parameters that the building blocks, the sales plan would be signed off. "Yes, we're going to go for that sales plan. Is it plus or minus on the year and how that sales plan is built up." We would then as buyers have done the work on the product in the background. Whilst we're doing all this analysis, we would be working on the product as well.

We'd be saying to ourselves, "Okay, is that the right fabric base? Do we need to fill some new fabric base? What are the new fabric bases or the new yarns that are coming through and where can we get them from? Do they work for our price point?" We would be developing product with our design teams to start forming the actual product that goes into that range build. We would be working with our supply base. We would be going out into the supply base. Traveling out to see that supply base in the country of origin to be able to work on product at that country of origin and start to negotiate the prices. We would have an idea of where those prices would be as we go further into the planning cycle. What we have to be armed with in order to go into these negotiations with our supply base is an understanding of things like the price of cotton, labor cost in the country of origin and any potential risk in terms of transport costs which may be fluctuating.

All the information that we would need to be armed with it in order to go into that negotiation. In order to know that the prices that we were getting were realistic and were based on some level of fact as opposed to a price that has no relevance to the product itself. The role is a very multifaceted role. This is what appeals to me.

I feel I'm a creative. I love to be creative, to create something physical and to see that product that you've created walking down the high street if you're in high street retail. There's nothing better than that buzz of seeing someone actually walking around in your product. That creativity from fabric choice through to to actual product. Or even further back from that, the idea created through a number of different influences, a number of different places, to create potentially a new product or a new product area. That creativity appeals greatly to me.

Alongside that, this ability to analyze, to understand and be able to interpret analysis, being able to use that analysis in a business orientated fashion. Essentially, we're dealing with millions of pounds. They're numbers on a page, but you have to understand what those numbers really mean and how you can manage the risk, there's always a risk associated, because if you only did what you always did you would go backwards. It's a constantly evolving role that has many facets to it. It has a real creative edge but equally has a very clear business element to it. For me it balances a wonderful mix of skills. For me that's the excitement.

What kind of person gets involved in a role like this?

I think if the only thing you wanted to do was to be involved with fashion don't be a buyer because it's not as simplistic as that. It's not about just producing pretty stuff. Depending on which retailer you work for, your customer is your master. You have to be able to appeal to your customer and be very, very clear about your customer base and who she is and how she wants to shop, whoever that person might be.

You need to be very, very clear about who that customer is. There's no point saying, "Well, you know, I want to be involved in fashion and I'm only going to buy this kind of stuff." For me fashion design graduates are not necessarily the very best in this role because they will ignore the analytical side of the role and just want to produce pretty stuff they like. A good buyer is able to identify a product that is absolutely bulls eye targeted to their customer.

It's very much a trade or mentality and that's what you need to survive. That's what I look for in a buyer is somebody who can bring me something and say, "I don't like it, but I think it's going to sell." Has the ability to take risk and is able to assess the level of risk that they are taking and be able to understand what that risk is and what the potential downside and upside of that risk is. That's a much more rounded person than simply somebody who enjoys the creative aspects.

You could have both. At the end of the day you’ve got to be able to identify what your customer likes and ensure that each item that you're producing is right for your customer. For me the people that I look to, the people that I would say are going to be the future are those ones that can balance their creativity along side an ability to analyze an understanding of risk taking. That's the attributes I would be delighted to see and encourage in a buying team.

For women’s high street mid market fast fashion, we spoke a little about range and sales planning. We spoke about sourcing the supply base. What is changing in the way operations are structured? How do retailers set up their supply chain structure and organisation to match consumer demands?

Well what we're facing head on at the moment is a very rapid change in consumer habits with the rise of online. The traditional bricks and mortar retailers have been slow to understand the impact and the desire that the customer has to shop online as well as shop in bricks and mortar. We've been very, very slow in the industry to change the message where the pure players have really stolen a march on the rest of the traditional high street retailers.

The high street retailers are encumbered with cost that are very, very difficult to get rid of. The costs, for example, staff costs they have been all cut down to size. Obviously we've seen the CVAs (Company Voluntary Arrangements) that a number of retailers have been trying to undertake to reduce their cost.

I think historically (in the UK) there was a massive expansion in bricks and mortar. There was an idea that essentially the more shops you had that was the answer. I started with New Look where we had a very small portfolio of stores and to grow it to over a thousand stores, that is an immense store state. The reality now is that with the rise of online there is absolutely no need to have a thousand store estate.

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