by ABFRLadmin | January 31, 2024
Presenting an excerpt from If Clothes Could Speak by Shruti Ravinder & Feba George
Fashion Buyers are the main drivers in the global fashion retail industry, a pivotal area and influential role in any successful fashion business. They plan the purchasing of seasonal items, identify upcoming trends and choose the right product and brand mix. As a buyer, you must analyse customer buying patterns and predict future trends. When planning new ranges, you must consider customer demand, price levels and the general market.
Buying and Merchandising Head, Prabha Sreenivasan, has more than a decade of expertise in luxury retail. She has donned many roles—starting as a merchandiser to understand the logistics of the fashion business, she has worked her way up from an Assistant Buyer handling accessories to Group Buying Manager to currently General Manager at Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd – The Collective. She has travelled extensively to Europe and worked closely with brands such as Armani, Versace, Hugo Boss, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors,Ted Baker, and Fred Perry. Prabha talks about combining gut instincts with numbers and data to forecast what will be sold in stores. Her story gives a perspective on the evolving role of fashion buyers and merchandisers.
“My foremost memory of fashion is wearing beautiful clothes my mom stitched for me! She is a homemaker but has always been very ambitious. She has many talents but never really got a platform to display them, she would express that in some ways through me. My mother used to scout through local fortnightly magazines to find patterns of dresses with the latest collars and sleeves, then make paper patterns and look out for the most beautiful fabrics. I remember shopping for fabrics from Garden and Bombay Dyeing stores in those days to make the most dreamy dresses. I used to be the best-dressed girl in my friend’s circle. I knew I wanted to do something in the world of fashion. Of course, I, too, wanted to be a designer and have my own label. But at some point, I realised this might not be for me, but then what next?
Fast forward to a few years after graduation in Fashion Technology from MG University, Kerala, I joined as a front-end sales promoter at The Collective in 2008 – India’s first multi-branded luxury concept store launched by the Aditya Birla group. I was lucky enough to get noticed by the management, who later offered me a position as the accessory buyer. I grew along with the business, and today, I am the Buying Head for The Collective’s multi-brand and mono-brand formats and the online channel.
Buying, planning, and merchandising are three different yet converging departments. In some way or another, they are all responsible for the product on offline-online platforms.
A demand planner’s main role is to control the inventory situation of the organisation. Operating with higher levels of inventory than required is unhealthy which means you are blocking working capital simultaneously. One cannot operate with too little inventory as well.
Based on the sales forecast shared by the sales/ marketing team, the planner will decide the amount of inventory required to meet the demand and this budget – called OTB (Open to Buy), is shared with the buyers.
In fashion retail, a buyer selects the items to sell in their online/offline stores. A buyer is responsible for curating a range of apparel and accessories that align with the market’s demands. A buyer’s skills involve extensive data analysis, high organisation skills, and the ability to closely follow emerging fashion trends. It’s a fine balance of art and science. A buyer is also the link between the retailer and the supplier. They speak to the brand principal, manage the account, scout for new brands, negotiate for commercial terms and discounts, and ensure that the retailer gets the best possible trading terms available in the market. Parallelly, a merchandiser will confirm product availability on the shop floor at the right time. They closely coordinate with the supply chain and commercial teams. Merchandisers working in an organisation where products are designed and manufactured are also responsible for getting the right fabrics at the right prices, liaising with various vendors, etc. The roles mentioned above could vary and overlap between a buyer and merchandiser from one company to another. Nevertheless, both these roles go hand-in-hand when it comes to meeting the product demands of the market.
When buying for any market, start with data analysis, cut and slice the data in as many ways as possible to spot trends and selling patterns. My ex-boss used to say, “There are a million ways to skin a cat”, and I could not agree with her more. Use historical sales data to understand what colours work best in what category, what price point works best in which market, which fits best in which brand and so on. In some brands, you will see that every season, most of the sales come from a certain set of classic products, which never really changes its design or fit. Whereas there will be a set of brands that thrive because of their ability to surprise customers with disruptive fits and designs. So, it is imperative to understand which brand plays what role in your consumers’ wardrobe and play to the strengths. In a diverse nation such as ours, consumer preferences vary widely from region to region. For example, colour and design preferences for the Delhi market would be such a contrast against the Chennai market. Again, there is an indispensable amount of information hidden in these endless sets of data, but it’s up to the individual buyer as to how deep he/she is willing to dive into them to develop a thorough market view.
The scope of planning, buying, and merchandising, especially in the super-premium/luxury segment, is growing. AI, machine learning and multiple other data analysis tools make data crunching and throwing out inferences or patterns faster and more accurate. However, we need to remember that fashion is a very dynamic industry. Brands and retailers cannot repeat the same set of designs just because they have been successful in the past. There is a need for surprise and freshness, and that job requires originality, social perceptiveness and persuasion, which cannot be automated easily. Having said that, I believe if buyers and merchandisers can upskill themselves in data analysis, it will make them much more efficient.
Various reports have suggested that the Indian fashion industry is poised for accelerated growth over the next decade. Global brands are showing tremendous interest in entering the market and expanding their footprint in India. All of this will certainly increase the scope of professionals in the fashion industry. Consumer buying pattern differs across different categories and market segments, leaving scope for buyers to become an expert in fast fashion to the luxury segment, apparel to accessories. With e-commerce as another increasingly important vertical, there is a need for merchandisers who can guide users through their customer journeys.
If you want to become a buying and merchandising professional, there are numerous courses offered by Indian and international institutes like Marangoni, Bocconi, NIFT, Pearl Academy, etc., which will help you form a good base. But beyond that, a buyer must have a good grasp of numbers and statistics – they need to be able to analyse sales data, manage budgets, and be comfortable with spreadsheets. Larger organisations will have data collected over 8-10 years, but buyers need to ask the right questions to find the right answers, which will give valuable market insights. Buyers work with various departments (internal and external), so excellent communication skills are necessary.
Above all, having a flair for fashion and enjoying this industry will help you stand apart. Having the ability to forecast trends and a comprehensive understanding of what appeals to the target audience is a fine quality seen in all seasoned buyers.
The difference between working for an Indian market and an international one is that the latter believes in specialists more than generalists. The market is much more evolved and competitive. A degree from a reputed institute alone will not make you successful or grow. I have seen professionals in leading brands spending 5 – 6 years in the same role, just getting better at what they do. I think that is a mindset Indian organisations and young professionals lack.
Fashion is something I dream of. It gives me something to look forward to. It’s so dynamic and builds that curiosity of what’s next. I dress to reflect my mood for that day. That’s why I can never pre-decide what I will wear tomorrow. I have been fortunate to be a part of an era where I have seen trends changing so effortlessly yet noticeably. As a student, the history of fashion has always been my favourite topic. To see how clothing, from being a bare necessity, has evolved so much with time. How designers like Coco Chanel freed women from the Victorian corsets and how streetwear has now become such a big trend. That stems from my general love and appreciation for different cultures.
What I dislike about fashion is that it becomes toxic when you don’t draw a line. With all the pressure and exposure of social media, it is very easy to lose that balance, and one might end up forgetting who they are within while diverting all the attention to one’s external self. Sometimes, this industry can be a bit too much about vanity.
I’m proud of my accomplishments and journey with The Collective. We are the pioneers in bringing multi-branded luxury into the Indian consumer segment. I want to continue to build aspirations for the Indian consumer. We have a long way to go, but one thing is for sure, I want to continue in the fashion and retail industry.”
“Buying, planning and merchandising are three different yet converging departments. It’s a fine balance of art and science. A buyer must have a good grasp of numbers and statistics – they need to be able to analyse sales data, manage budgets, and be comfortable with spreadsheets.”