Career Insider: Fashion Buyers Play by the Numbers

Reality TV fans who tuned in this season to Project Runway were blown away by the creativity of competing fashion designers, who crafted everything from garbage bag “leather” jackets to chic outfits made from tacky bridesmaid dresses.

As Project Runway host Heidi Klum regularly notes: In the world of fashion, “you’re either in or you’re out.” Fashion is famously fickle. Designers live and die by that credo, and so, too, do fashion buyers.

Math…Who Knew?

Shows like Project Runway have helped launch fashion-related careers into the spotlight. More and more career-seekers are peeling back the racks of clothes on the retail floor to discover what is going on behind the fashion scenes. “When students come to us, they are very interested in buying,” says Connie Passarella, director of career services at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “They think of selling on the retail side and buying because they love to buy stuff. It is a very popular business side of fashion.”

And also one of the most misunderstood, says Passarella. Clothes and trends are only half the equation. “Truth is, it’s a highly analytical job where you are using math in every shape and form,” she notes.

Adds Anne Voller, director of college recruiting for Macy’s out of St. Louis, Missouri: “There’s definitely a huge fashion element to it. But students need to understand that the job is far more financially and analytically driven than you realize. We always make the joke that it’s not Rachel from Friends. Loving fashion and loving shopping doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll love being a buyer.”

Jenny Son was by no means a math maven when she decided to pursue a career in fashion buying when she was just out of college, but she did spend lots of time in her closet. She graduated from The College of New Jersey with an English degree in 2000 and, on the advice of a friend, interviewed with and was accepted into a 10-week training program at Macy’s Merchandising Group in New York City.

Son started as a product assistant in charge of product development for silver, gold, pearl and jade jewelry. She worked with overseas vendors to come up with concepts, analyze the market, see what was selling and working already on the floor and updating it every six months when the buyers came to town. Son was soon promoted to a Macy’s Merchandising Group merchandising assistant in fashion watches and jewelry, then on to an assistant buyer in women’s designer shoes for Macy’s East, also in New York City, then to an associate buyer in women’s athletic shoes and ultimately to a cosmetics buyer for Macy’s East.

Experience Counts

Along the way, Son has learned to negotiate price and product with vendors (as in designers, manufacturers and wholesalers), project and forecast the quantity of products needed for Macy’s stores, and, in the end, how to become a fierce business woman. “My number one priority is to make sales, plan and be profitable,” says Son. “The first thing I do each day is to check sales to see how my products performed the day before. Then I check receipts from vendors because I can’t make the sales if I don’t have the goods coming into the stores. I spend the majority of my time on the phone with vendors and if there’s a product that’s working, trying to get more of it. It’s about driving business and driving sales at store levels.”

And that math? “The job does involve a lot of numbers,” admits Son. “But once you learn to figure out a plan, it’s not reinventing the wheel. As a buyer, it’s really important that you immerse yourself in what you’re buying. It’s important to know what other people are doing so you can stay on top of the trends.”

Positions as fashion buyers are in high demand, so experience counts. Son urges buyer wannabes to spend some time working on the retail floor (think summer job at The Gap) so they understand “the full circle” of retail. Voller stresses that while department stores like Macy’s love fashion retailing majors, they will recruit students from all majors, from marketing and English to psychology, which nurtures strong critical-thinking skills. “People who have that entrepreneurial spirit love to work in our organization because you’re given a huge amount of responsibility right off the bat,” notes Voller, who adds that recruits start by earning in the low $40,000s and end wherever their ambition takes them. “We look for students who have juggled a lot of responsibility. So you’ve been involved in leadership roles, clubs and organizations and you’ve done well at school. You have to be very flexible to be successful. You have to be able to react to trends or to the competitor who just marked down swimsuits a week ahead of what they’ve ever done before and you need to decide what to do with your line.”

Ultimately, fashion buying is a high-speed game where you try to come out ahead in both sales and substance. “It’s so exciting to see whether or not an assortment you’ve picked out has worked,” says Son. “And if it doesn’t, then how are you going to react to it?”

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“Loving fashion and loving shopping doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll love being a buyer.”
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