What keeps fashion buyers awake at night?

10 March 2015

The question “what’s keeping you awake at night?” often prompts lively discussion.

Among fashion buyers, conversation gravitates toward one issue – how do we maximise full price sales and margin, when our customer is accustomed to a promotion or discount?

Fashion buying has many similarities with other parts of the profession. We are responsible for the effective sourcing of what the customer wants, with an understanding of supplier relationship management, value for money, timeliness and an ethical supply chain. But our accountability is that of salesmen as well as buyers, hence the insomnia.

Fashion buyers are constantly assessed on growth in sales and margins. So if you have a product that sold well, how quickly can you get more of the same manufactured? Selling out is a missed profit opportunity and customers take their money elsewhere. If a product does not sell at the rate per day or week that you bought for, how can you manage the pipeline of raw materials and part-finished goods for subsequent deliveries of similar lines? It will negatively impact profits if you to allow them to be made and delivered when you know that they are going to head straight to the sale rail.

But in retail you can’t ask a customer what they might want to buy in three to 12 months’ time. They simply don’t know.

Uncertainty is the only thing guaranteed, so flexibility is key. If the fabric is not cut, can the design team restyle it into something you believe will sell better, before you miss your supplier’s production slot? Can you make these changes without delaying delivery?

In the volatile world of fashion, dealing with uncertainty is crucial. Agreeing mutually low-risk flexibility strategies with your sourcing partners allows both buyer and supplier to benefit from increased orders for strong sellers. It also minimises profit impact and relationship damage when inevitably there is a forecast trend that does not sell.

It’s a continuous challenge to achieve results on both the sourcing and customer demand prediction aspects of the role. But it is also immensely satisfying when you see the high-profile impact you have made on the company’s bottom line – and garments you believed in walking towards you down the street.

You might think I would sleep well when both the numbers and the product are looking good, but I know most trends are fleeting. So I am probably busy trying to predict when the trend will end, understand what we have learned, and decide whether what I have bought next is right after all…

Susan Millin is a fashion, product and commercial director who has held roles at Selfridges, LK Bennett and the Arcadia Group

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