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Merchant vs. Buyer

There are two questions that always seem to come up when I mention my career… “What is it exactly that you do?” and “What’s the difference between a Merchant and a Buyer?”

So knowing my ultimate goal is to get as many people as possible excited about the business of retail- I thought I would dive into those answers today. Let’s start with what they both have in common…

Whether you are a Buyer or a Merchant, there are some key responsibilities that will always exist (in addition to our love for product):

1. Market Knowledge- understanding what is happening from a news and trend perspective in your specific field. For example- fashion vs. home vs. beauty, women’s vs. men’s vs. kids, and brick and mortar vs. e-commerce.

2. Target Demographic- knowing who your ideal customer is, why they shop with you, and what they expect from the brand in order to stay loyal.

3. Competitive Mindset- knowledge of the retailers you are in direct competition with, their product offering, quality, price points, and strategy.

4. Analytics- tracking, reviewing, and reacting to sales and forecast projections.

In terms of skill set, below is a brief list of what I consider to be most important (for both roles). Retail is all about teamwork and constant evolution. Which means you must be able to adapt to change and collaborate cross-functionally. The skills below are essential in order to thrive within that kind of environment.

  • Communication

  • Presentation

  • Multi-tasking

  • Problem- solving

  • Flexibility

  • Organization

  • Follow- Up

Okay, let's dive into the Merchant role...

Merchants are responsible first and foremost for the assortment direction / strategy- specifically within vertical retail. They are the ones who partner with Design and Sourcing to ensure the fabric, silhouette, and detailing meet quality standards and is cost effective. They are also focused on balancing the product offering (fashion vs. basic, solid vs. pattern, color vs. neutral) while maintaining the brand aesthetic throughout. They partner with the Buying team to understand how many choices are needed per category, per month, and at what price. They also partner with Visual and Marketing to ensure promotional vehicles and fashion collections are properly represented. This includes in-store destinations, online outfitting, window updates, direct mail, and social media. Merchants are also tracking the products performance on a weekly basis to understand sales and opportunity as they move forward. Which means Merchants are also responsible for the financial impact of their departments, they just aren't the ones physically buying the inventory.

Being a Merchant is a huge responsibility because you need to know EVERYTHING. You are the nucleus of the calendar- partnering with every cross-functional team from the minute there is a black and white sketch to the day a customer makes a purchase. You are the one dissecting the product line, developing the assortment, staying ahead of the competition, and seeing the concept through to completion. It's strategy, it's creativity, it’s analytics, it’s partnership, it’s forecasting, and it’s knowledge- of the brand, your customer, and the product you represent.

Now, let’s talk about Buying…

Buyers are primarily responsible for the financial strategy (aka purchasing and negotiating). They take the analytical data from previous seasons and create the foundation for what’s next- which means they decide by department, by category, by item what will drive sales and increase profitability based on trend. So before the Merchants work with Design, they meet with Buying to review the financial plan to ensure everyone is aligned. Once the Merchants present the product offering / collection, the Buyers are the ones purchasing it. Deciding how many units of each item will be bought, for how long, and for what stores. They are also working on the lifecycle of the product (meaning how long it’s on the floor) and building in the promotional strategy as well. Buyers also work with Visual to ensure priority investments are strategically showcased for the customer and that all signage is accurate. Once the product has hit stores, the Buyers (and their Planning counterparts) are reading and reacting to the business on a daily basis. Making sure that the inventory, pricing, and visual placement are where they need to be in order to drive sales and make plan.

When working for a wholesale retailer (Macy’s for example), the Buyer is also responsible for cost negotiation, maintaining strong relationships with vendors, overall pricing strategy, the product display, and any advertising involved.

Being a Buyer is about understanding your business inside and out. Similar to Merchants you need to be on top of strategy and product, but for the most part you need to be an EXPERT on the data. You need to know how your department / category is performing and what you are going to do about it. It's diving into the details (by style, by color, by price, by location) and becoming incredibly knowledgeable in the process. You negotiate, plan, analyze, manage, capture, react, and lead.

Okay, so where does that leave us?

At the end of the day, whether you are a Buyer or Merchant you are working TOGETHER to move your brand / company forward. It’s about knowing what’s happening in the market, what the customer is responding to, and how to get them excited season after season. It’s not an easy job by any means, but it’s incredibly rewarding and I couldn't love it more.

Here's to all of you finding a career path that makes you just as happy....


Please know that if you ever have any questions or want to discuss the above further- you can always email me. I would love to hear from you!

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