A Beginners Guide to Retail Buying: Understanding retail buyer basics

When people say they are a Buyer, or they want a career in buying, most of us have a picture of what that might mean. They are the people who buy the products that we in turn, as customers, buy from retail shops and websites. Simple, right? But is it..?

The reality is that beyond that general description there are lots of different buying roles and they can differ quite dramatically between different types of retailers.  Let’s start by considering some of the key differences.

Understanding Buying Teams

The first distinction can sometimes lie in the primary objective a business has of its buying team.

Customer Facing Buying Teams

In many cases, the role requires the Buyer to be primarily customer facing. Here, the Buyer needs to have a deep understanding of their customers, their needs & expectations, their lifestyle and their connection to the marketplace in which they operate.

Usually this goes hand in hand with a high creative flair, a thorough comprehension of the competition and a natural instinct for keeping on top of trends to ensure the product range that is offered meets and exceeds the customers’ needs and desires.

Product sectors with a high fashion element, frequent range change and lots of own label product development are good examples of this type of buying.

Vendor Facing Buying Teams

On the other hand, some buying roles are more about selecting or sourcing product ranges, selecting and managing the right suppliers, negotiating the best deals and ensuring technical and quality standards are met. This might be because the product range is more of a known quantity that either has less frequent change or is led by brands rather than retailers.

It certainly does not mean they don’t need to know their customer, but either the needs of the customer are more stable and established, or the key brands within the market sector have effectively done the job of product development for them.

A Blend of Both

Of course, what is more common is that Buyers need to combine both of these skills – some are fortunate to have dedicated functions within their business to help. For example, working with Designers and Product Technologists on product and range development, working with Supply Chain teams who manage logistics, working with Sourcing teams who source and manage vendors.

However, even if this is the case the Buyer needs to understand how each of these functions work, have great relationships with them and lead and guide the buying agenda for their product area in order to deliver their strategy and business goals.

The Retail Buying Cycle

So, it is therefore more useful to consider all the typical tasks and decisions undertaken by most Buyers by looking at the Retail Buying Cycle.

Buying cycles follow product lifecycles in that some are very short and change frequently – consider a high fashion retailer that changes product ranges every few weeks, and others are longer and change less frequently – consider certain products in the grocery or DIY sectors which are rarely updated or might even be everyday staples.

Most product life cycles will however change and evolve over time, and many are influenced by the actions of Buyers and Product Development teams, however from the perspective of the Buyer it’s the timing that changes; the key process steps remain the same and they have a role to play throughout.

What are your goals?

During the Strategy stage the Buyer will be exploring the trends for their product area, analysing the market and competition, reviewing performance from previous seasons and essentially understanding as much about their customer as possible.

Working with the Merchandisers they will build a strategy for their product area which will describe how they plan to achieve their goals for both the product and financial performance.

How do you plan a product range?

Moving into the Plan stage, this is where the bulk of the activity to plan the range is done. It’s also where retail jargon can become confusing as some retailers call this range planning, some range building, some assortment planning – and that’s just the most common terms!

Assortment Planning: Art versus Science

Essentially though, there will be a plan of how many options are going to form the range, with a framework of how the range will be balanced across the key elements of the strategy.

For example, it might show the split for brands and own label if that is relevant, it will certainly reflect the price architecture from entry prices to premium and should also indicate products that are planned to carry over from previous seasons vs those which are new. There will also be a first view of which stores or selling channels are to receive which items and an indication of the buy quantity in units

The Buyer then begins to populate that range framework with actual products, ensuring the balance is maintained.

One industry standard approach is to define what will represent a ‘good’ product, a ‘better’ and a ‘best’ – remembering this is not really about price but is about product design or quality or features.

It’s very much an iterative process, often beginning with placeholders that are filled in as more is known about each product.

Most buyers will analyse the mix of products they are choosing according to a set of attributes – it might be colour, or fabric type, or garment feature in clothing; or it could be components and materials or end use in other sectors.

These are determined by another key tool – the customer decision tree. Knowing how your customer shops helps to create the range..For example, consider these two possible decision trees (below) about how a customer might choose a bottle of wine and how that might make a difference to how you build your range or how you lay it out in store or on a website.

Offering real choice, not just variety…

Regardless of the sector every Buyer must make sure that every product has a role to play in the range.

Why would a customer choose this particular item over another? Would enough of your customers choose it to make it a commercial option or are you offering variety rather than real choice?

A great way to check this out is to rank the range according to the sales you believe they will achieve and apply the 80/20 rule to evaluate whether you have too many options.

Turning the plan into reality and maximising the results

Once all the planning is done, the Buyer moves into the Buy stage which is where the suppliers are briefed with the product requirements and negotiation begins.

It’s a mistake to think this is just about price – the best Buyers also negotiate on volumes, shipping, packaging, warehousing, and sometimes marketing contributions and other commercial rebates.

However, the key here is on getting the best cost price delivering the best margin for the product in question – but being aware of how that margin can be eroded by other cost pressures as the product journeys through the business.

Once the products go into production there is a huge task of tracking their progress through the critical path, securing samples and test results, and making commercial decisions for any and every eventuality.

Arguably once the range actually arrives into the business during the Move stage, there is less for the Buyer to do – although in many businesses they develop launch packages for the sales advisors to get to know the product range and how to present and sell it.

However, Trading is as much a role for the Buyer as it is the Merchandiser.

They will be focusing on the best sellers: Can they repeat and keep the product in the range for longer, or can they edit next year’s range based on what they have learnt?

The same goes for poor sellers: Why didn’t they work and what does that mean for future products that might be in development? What can be done about the poor performance? Can suppliers help or is markdown the only answer?

And then the whole cycle begins again. In fact, most retailers are juggling multiple seasons at the same time – planning one for the future, finalising another due in soon, and trading the current season now.

What are the skills and capabilities that make a great Buyer?

As well as training on the technical aspects of the job, a successful Buyer will demonstrate these skills and capabilities:



Some of these traits will be inherent within the individual from the start, but others can be taught and refined as their career develops, so it’s best to look for training programmes which cover both commercial, technical and behavioural skills.

Where can I find the best training for Retail Buyers?

Training for Buyers is one of the core parts of our business and as a result of this experience we can develop bespoke training for you, or you can sign up to one of our off-shelf training courses in our Academy for Buyers, Merchandisers and Planners.

It’s essential to ensure the foundations of retail are well-established as well so any programme should begin with the Retail Basics.

Every business is different, and each individual will progress at their own speed, but a typical set of learning paths for a Retail Buyer might look like this :

In our view, the best Buyers are those who work hand-in-hand with their Merchandising & Planning colleagues, so if you’re wondering what the difference is between the two roles, head on over to our partner piece covering the basics of retail merchandising and planning and the skills you’ll need to develop if you think that’s more up your street.

Need more help with the buying processes or tools, mentioned in this guide? Check out our training academy for buyers, merchandisers & merchandise planners, or get in touch

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Clare Edwards

About the author: Clare Edwards

A Principal Consultant and Head of the First Friday Training Academy, Clare has over 30 years of retail experience which she uses to support clients to develop their commercial knowledge, technical capability and soft skills.

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