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A Day in the Life of a Buyer

Being a professional buyer is a glamorous, powerful job in many respects. But the glitter and glitz cloud the hard work and keen intellect required to make it in this competitive field. Professional buyers examine goods and work within reasonable budgets to make competitive bids for products to resell. Don’t underestimate the amount and the scale of negotiations necessary. “People eat you alive if they think they can get away with it,” wrote one buyer. Those comfortable with negotiating reported a higher-than-average satisfaction with their job. The decisions a buyer makes-color, size, quantity and price-are some of the most important in determining whether a company makes a profit in a given year. The power to influence sales, beat competition, and earn high profits through your own action gives many buyers satisfaction in a high-pressure position. The bottom line in this job is “how am I selling and what is my margin.” “It’s the closest thing to gambling, including picking stocks. You don’t really have a lot of research-you have to go with your taste and your gut feeling,” mentioned one long-term buyer, “It’s addictive.” Some buyers said that it is important to stick with what you know and not think about commercial profitability, because “you’re just as likely to pick a winner or a dog either way. Consumer taste is fickle.” Buyers must have confidence in their choices, and be able to assert their preferences and defend their selections. Buyers work long and sometimes unusual hours, traveling to fashion shows, industry conferences, seminars, and trade shows. They investigate producers’ lines, then place orders, usually with a limited amount of discussion. Professional buyers work with retail sales people to get feedback on how choices they have made responded to the market. This back-and-forth dialogue is important to a buyer’s understanding of any problems the sales force has moving the product. A significant number of respondents mentioned the support the other members of the field provided. While many times buyers will come into conflict over purchases and sales, the profession is so grueling that many find themselves sympathetic with one another in spite of that conflict.

Paying Your Dues

Almost any major can prepare you to become a buyer; it depends on what you want to buy. A book buyer might have been an English major; someone who buys hospital supplies might have majored in biology. Any college major with a business or managerial skills background will prepare you for the career. All employers require new employees to learn the specifics of their own business. Large companies usually have internal buyer training programs lasting from one to five years that expose the new employee to all aspects of the business. Many trainees begin as salespeople and learn about inventory policy, stock maintenance, and shipment checking. Aspiring buyers receive extensive training on proprietary computer and inventory tracking systems. The abilities to plan ahead, predict consumer habits and make difficult decisions mark those who emerge successfully from training programs. Those who continue in the profession find it helpful to achieve the professional designations recognized in each state, such as Certified Purchasing Manager (CMP) and Certified Purchasing Professional (CPE). To become an official purchasing agent for the government, applicants must pass a two- or three-part exam to attain federal certification.

Present and Future

Professional buyers were part of the growth of large retail concerns, where stores would stock the same merchandise in the same region. Professional buyer was a position created to centralize these responsibilities and standardize inventory. Buyers face a shrinking market for their services. The industry trend among major retail stores has been consolidation and/or bankruptcy. In 1995, eleven major retail chains filed for Chapter 11 (bankruptcy protection). Industry consolidation means shrinkage of redundant positions and further standardization of inventory, so buyers have fewer opportunities to buy. This shrinkage of jobs at large retail stores may be offset by the growth of chains, but not enough evidence exists yet to decide how likely this is.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Professional buyers have begun, and in some cases completed, buyer training programs. Lessons include budgeting, accounting, retail sales, computer systems, inventory control, company protocol, an overview of the industry they are involved in, and some basic financial skills. Many have begun “externship” parts of their program where part of the time is spent in classrooms and the rest is spent working in retail sales departments. Many cite working in retail as invaluable to their development as professional buyers. Salaries and responsibilities are low, but many enjoy these years for the education and quality of life (free time) they offer.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Those involved in long training programs have finished them and become assistant buyers with discrete accounts and responsibilities. Many pursue additional education through coursework, industry publications, and professional seminars. Those with good reputations for hard work and shrewd bargaining can advance to full buyer status with accountability to the head of the department. Numerous opportunities arise for aggressive buyers to distinguish themselves; the price for this risky behavior can be significant-over 20 percent of the workforce is let go by year five, primarily for lack of “aptitude” at the profession.

TEN YEARS OUT

Hours increase, responsibilities increase, salary increases. Years seven to eleven are when most professional buyers settle into the roles they will assume for most of their careers. Those who’ve wanted to move into management have by this point, and those who wish to remain buyers have carved out comfortable territory for themselves. Work changes from directly negotiating deals to overseeing other buyers and assistant buyers. Many have established relationships with producers. Over 30 percent of ten-year members of the industry are still with the companies they began their careers with.