Retail buyers are essential to the success of a retail business as they ensure appropriate products are sourced at the right price

Working as a retail buyer, you'll plan and select a range of products to sell in retail outlets. You'll need to consider several factors when making purchasing decisions including customer demand, including price, quality and availability. Market trends, store policy and financial budgets are other considerations and restraints.

You'll also source new merchandise and review existing items to ensure products remain competitive. By fully understanding customer needs, you are able to maximise profits and provide a commercially viable range of merchandise at competitive prices.

Responsibilities

As a retail buyer you'll need to:

  • analyse consumer buying patterns and predict future trends
  • regularly review performance indicators, such as sales and discount levels
  • manage plans for stock levels
  • Keep up to date with market trends and react to changes in demand and logistics
  • meet suppliers and negotiate terms of contract
  • maintain relationships with existing suppliers and source new suppliers for future products
  • understand the basic rules of vendor management, allocation and price negotiation
  • liaise with other departments within the organisation to ensure projects are completed
  • attend trade fairs, in the UK and overseas, to select and assemble a new collection of products
  • participate in promotional activities
  • write reports and forecast sales levels
  • present new ranges to senior retail managers
  • liaise with shop personnel to ensure supply meets demand
  • obtain feedback from customers
  • train and mentor junior staff.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for junior buyers are in the region of £18,000 to £25,000.
  • With experience you can expect salaries of £25,000 to £45,000.
  • Senior retail buyers earn between £45,000 and £70,000+.

Salaries vary according to a number of factors, including location, the size of the business and product type. Store turnover may also have a bearing on salary, rewarding good performance. Some companies offer attractive benefits like retail discount, a company car and private healthcare.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll often have to meet very tight deadlines and as a result working hours will frequently extend beyond 9am to 5pm.

Early starts or late finishes may be especially common when travelling to trade fairs or fashion shows. Although it's not common freelance work is possible, especially in London, once you have experience.

Career breaks are not typical, but it depends largely on the organisation. Opportunities to work part time are limited due to the heavy workload.

What to expect

  • The role carries a considerable amount of responsibility and pressure and so can be stressful at times.
  • The majority of your time will be spent in an office, although there may be travel off-site during the day. Buying departments have a busy and lively atmosphere.
  • You'll have frequent contact with wholesalers, manufacturers and suppliers.
  • Most buyers are based in the organisation's head office. The majority of these are in London or the South East, although opportunities may exist in other parts of the UK.
  • Travel to attend trade shows may be required occasionally, as well as visits to suppliers in the UK and overseas.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, a degree in retail or business can equip you with a greater commercial awareness and therefore increase your chances of getting a job. Graduate programmes are open to those with a 2:2 or above.

In certain buying areas, such as fashion, employers may look for a relevant degree subject or a demonstrable interest and commitment to this particular area of retailing.

Relevant HNDs and foundation degrees may be accepted by some employers, particularly if a candidate has practical experience to offer.

It's sometimes possible to work your way up to a buying position without higher education qualifications. The level of competition is fierce, however, and there are few vacancies that offer direct entry into buying.

When applying for jobs find out as much as you can about the company and the products they sell as part of your interview preparation. Read trade journals, such as:

Skills

You'll need to show evidence of the following:

  • strong analytical skills
  • negotiation skills and the ability to network and influence people
  • teamworking and interpersonal skills
  • excellent communication skills
  • numeracy skills and proficiency using IT
  • good organisation skills and the ability to multitask
  • the ability to cope with the pressure of having to make important decisions and meet tight deadlines
  • the capability to work in a fast-paced environment and achieve targets
  • drive and determination
  • entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to take risks
  • commercial awareness
  • leadership attributes
  • creative flair
  • confident presentation style
  • a passion for retail.

Work experience

Previous retail work experience is important. This could be a part-time job on a shop floor, a role within the head office, even time spent work shadowing - gain as much experience as you can.

Employers

All retailers and manufacturers employ people that are responsible for buying. Typical employers include:

  • general discounters
  • high street department stores
  • home improvement stores
  • mail order companies
  • niche retailers
  • online sellers
  • specific product-led retailers, e.g. clothing, shoes, food and drink, sporting goods, electrical goods, furniture and furnishings
  • supermarkets
  • television shopping channels.

Buyers are predominantly based at company head offices, many of which are in London and the South East, although a handful of the large national retailers are based elsewhere in the UK. Smaller regional retailers may also have buying positions.

Skills are transferable across different sectors because most organisations have a common need to buy goods, services or materials.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as CASTUK and Michael Page have vacancies within the retail buying sector.

If you're unsuccessful in gaining entry on to a training scheme, it's possible to work elsewhere in retail, such as on the shop floor and then gain an internal promotion to retail buying.

Professional development

Training programmes are available, offering direct entry into buying, in many areas of retail but especially within fashion. These are usually graduate schemes and most take between one and two years to complete.

Some large retailers offer training schemes in general store management with the option of specialising in buying after completing the general programme. This way, trainees are given the opportunity to gain skills and experience in all aspects of retail before specialising. Competition is high for these types of programmes, so you need to be determined and well-informed about the industry.

Many new buyers learn by working closely with more experienced members of staff, either accompanying them to trade shows and site visits, or as they search for new products and contracts. The larger the employer the more structured the training is likely to be. In smaller independent organisations a trainee manager may be directly involved in buying as well as in other areas of management, such as marketing, pricing and merchandising.

Most large employers offer a structured continuing professional development (CPD) scheme, supplemented by a range of in-house training, to help develop any specific skills that might be needed. You may be able to study for professional and postgraduate qualifications, such as an MBA, or qualifications with the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS).

However, this is not a mandatory requirement to further career progression and many buyers may find it difficult to fit in the time for such courses. Distance learning options are also available, e.g. the Buying and Merchandising course run by Bira (British Independent Retailers Association). Find out more at Bira - Our events.

Career prospects

Progression is usually from a graduate trainee position, which may last up to 24 months, into any available buying position.

Generally, you'll start as a buyer's assistant, progressing to the position of junior or trainee buyer and then to senior buyer - provided you've gained sufficient experience. It normally takes about two or three years to achieve each progression. Geographical mobility can be an issue as you may need to move from head office to a store.

Moving into a senior management position is possible, particularly within larger retail organisations. An example is the role of buying controller, which involves greater responsibility, with bigger buying ranges and larger budgets. Roles within product management, marketing or merchandising are also possible.

For those who do not want increased responsibility but wish to have variety, lateral promotion can be a good option. Another possibility is setting up a business and opening your own retail outlet.